The Alexandria School Board is set to vote tonight on a revised student attendance policy, which one school administrator has called the hottest issue in years.
Last year, the school board decided to crack down on truancy with a stringent new attendance policy that denies students credit for a course if they are absent from it more than 10 times.
Once a child exceeds the 10-absence limit, current policy requires parents to appeal to an assistant superintendent and provide outside proof, such as a note from a doctor, that the absence was among those listed as acceptable by the schools.
But in the year the new policy has been in effect, parents have angrily complained, saying the new rules cover too few acceptable excuses and in some cases take away their right as parents to decide when their children need to remain out of school.
Despite the revisions, parents say the proposed changes do not go far enough in meeting their concerns.
"We are very unsatisfied with the revisions recommended by the committee," said parent Dick Boo, president of the T.C. Williams PTA.
Assistant Superintendent Arlene Moore said a committee of parents, teachers and administrators studied the new policy and recommended several revisions, such as adding religious holidays to the list of acceptable excuses and transferring the appeals process from an assistant superintendent to school principals, which would allow for greater flexibility.
"All new policies need revisions the first year or two," Moore said. "This has been the hottest issue we've had, perhaps because parents feel we are taking away their discretion. Our basic premise, however, is that students belong in school. That is a state law."
In an effort to strike middle ground between parents and the administration, school board members Judith Feaver and Lou Cook have drawn up their own list of revisions and will submit it for a vote tonight.
Cook said the proposal allows greater flexibility in what is considered an acceptable absence and would allow parents, under appropriate circumstances, to take their children on trips longer than the 10 allowed days.
The plan she and Feaver are proposing, Cook said, also would allow principals to handle appeals, and parents would not necessarily have to submit outside proof regarding their child's absences.
"Imagine if you're a mother and your child is sick and you decide he should stay home from school," she said. "Chances are you just feel his forehead, not call a doctor. But if you don't go to a doctor, you can't get a note, so you don't have documentation. It is very frustrating for parents. They feel they aren't being trusted."
Cook said she is not sure if she has enough votes on the nine-member board to pass her proposal. Several board members contacted late last week said they had not made a decision.
The biggest rift seems to be the question of extended trips. Moore and Board Chaman Shirley Tyler said trips are not an acceptable reason for students to be absent from school.
"How can you make up for classroom discussion in a car on an interstate highway?" Moore asked.
But Charles H. Jackson, assistant superintendent for pupil services, said that as a practical matter extended trips accounted for only about five of the 530 appeals he had last year from parents asking that their children receive credits for courses, although they had exceeded the 10-absence limit. "I don't see trips as really being that much of a problem," he said.
Jackson said he did not excuse any students whose appeals for course credit were based on an extended trip. More than 90 percent of the remaining appeals were granted, however, most from families whose children were absent more than 10 days due to illness, death in the family, pregnancies, accidents and divorce court proceedings.
According to administrators, the attendance rule in effect before the current policy was a bureacratic nightmare of forms, certified letters and permission slips. Cook said only 10 absences were allowed but students got around the policy by bringing in notes from their parents, sometimes forged.
"It (the new policy) was an attempt to punish the truants and the good kids are caught in the cross fire," she said.