Montgomery County high school students chafing at the bit this fall under new rules aimed at keeping them in school more of the time.
"It's way too strict and nit-picking," said Susan Hillengrand, a 17-year-old Betheada-Chevy Chase senior whose cartoon in the school newspaper struck a chord among students.
"There is a vigorous movement by school administrators and county officials to 'cut out the nonsense' and 'get back to basics.' The way they choose to carry out their new goal is by instituting regulations and eliminating priveleges," said the opening issue editorial of Walt Whitman High School's nswapaper, Black and White.
"This conservative cast of mind has caused Whitman's atmosphere to change from relaxed to repressed," it said.
The Senior High Policy, battle flag of the Montgomery County Board of Education's "conservative majortiy," went into effect this September in the county's 22 high schools, making school life different for about 34,000 students.
It says that students must take a full schedule of classes, regardless of whether they need the credits to graduate, that a student will lose credit for a course after five unexcused absences, and that final examinations will be given in all major subjects. In addition, countywide examinations in English and mathematics will be tried out in a handful of schools as part of a pilot program.
For the past three years, students lost credit for a course if they missed 10 or more classes without a valid reason. The school system found that about 2,000 ninth-through 12th-grade students lost more than 4,000 credits last year because of 10 or more unexcused absences.
This year, those unexcused absences are down to five. But Nathan Pearson, principal at Senaca Valley High School, said he expects fewer credit losses rather than more.
"There's a conservative trend among students that makes them more responsible," he said. "We've experienced improvement overall in students meeting their responsibilities.
"Also, more parents are sensitive or attentive to monitoring the attendance of the student. They communicate with the school more regularly.
"This year there is at least 50 percent improvement in parents giving us advance notice on requests to have students excused. We've had many phone calls from parents inquiring about the legitimacy of certain absences," he said.
The first editorial this year in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School newspaper "The Tattler" blasted the changes.
"The net effect of the administration's new policies constitutes a threat to the atmosphere that once characterized B-CC. The administrators seem to have little faith in B-CC students. They seem to doubt us in every respect: from our ability to conduct ourselves responsibly to our willingness to read. Not surprisingly, students are angry and embittered.
"Yet, at the same time they are fearful. Who dares to defy or question an administration that has acted as this one has?" it asked.
B-CC has, as has every school, a school code that outlines rules on attendance and discipline. Principal Carl W. Smith said the regulations at B-CC have not changed much from last year, but that for the first time the entire policy was printed in the student handbook.
"All we intend to do is follow the procedures of the school system and implement them fairly," he said.
The high school policy gives minimum guidelines that excuse students from school for reasons of illness, death in the family, court summons and religious observance. They can also be let out to work as volunteer student aides in certain programs, to visit college campuses, have job interviews or take part in school-approved or sponsored activities. These require a written request for approval five days in advance.
A student who loses credit may petition the teacher to have the credit restored. The teacher gives a recommendation to the principal, who makes the decision.
The student could also ask to get the credit by taking a special education class or an adult class.
If the student needs that particular course to graduate, he would have to repeat it the following semester, in summer school or in an evening class.
Further rules are up to the individual schools. Schools differ, for example, in how they handle tardiness to class. At B-CC and other schools, three "tardies" equals an unexcused absence.
"I'd say the loss of credit policy has affected attendance significantly and positively," Smith said. "I've chased a lot of kids around year after year. The LC (loss of credit) policy has put some of the responsiblity on the student. It becomes less of a game."
"We believe that our attendance has improved," said Gaithersburg High School Principal Elizabeth A. Meyer. "We have fewer students who are selectively class-cutting than last year."
Gaithersburg began last year to rigorously enforce its attendance requirements, resulting in more than 600 credit losses.
"We expect to have many fewer credit losses this year," Meyer said. "It takes that length of time (over the last year) for students to perceive it's going to be effected."
"Things have changed a lot," said Stephanie Collins, 17, a senior at Gaithersburg. "Last year a lot of people were out in the parking lot or in the hallways. Now a lot of people stay in class."