In an effort to improve public school attendance in Charles County, school officials are suggesting the initiation of Saturday classes for truants, a computerized telephone system to check on one high school's students at home and a more rigorous accounting system to track the county's chronically absent students.

The recommendations are part of a major policy shift aimed at improving the county's ranking as 19th lowest in school attendance out of Maryland's 24 school districts.

With an average of 92.8 percent of its 16,398 students in school each day, Charles tied with Montgomery County last year; ranked ahead of Prince George's, which had 90.9 percent attendance, and was behind top-ranked Caroline County, which averaged 94.7 percent, statistics from the Maryland Department of Education show.

Nationally, Maryland has been ranked 43rd, Virginia 32nd and the District 47th in average school attendance. Across the country, school attendance averages about 96 percent.

Last year in Charles County, about 440 students were considered chronically truant, defined by the state as missing more than 40 school days a year, said pupil personnel worker Sheila Grainger.

The attendance committee is recommending that students be allowed a total of only 20 days absent a year. Once a student misses 20 days -- for whatever reason -- the case will be taken up at a meeting of school personnel and the parents unless the family produces written medical excuses, Grainger said.

Sessions at a special Saturday school or at the county's evening high school may be suggested for truants, Grainger said. "In extreme cases, where the parents and children refuse to cooperate, suspension will be the next step."

In a $47.6 million school operating budget he plans to submit today, School Superintendent John H. Bloom is asking the county commissioners for about $5,000 to test a computerized telephone system to check on missing students next year at Thomas Stone High School, where chronic truancy is highest in the county, and $23,500 for a fifth pupil personnel worker.

During the past school year, about 600 students missed 20 or more school days, Grainger said; 39 percent of them were enrolled at Thomas Stone.

"That's why we're trying the phone system out there first," said Robert Pender, head of pupil services and chairman of the committee charged with developing a new attendance policy.

Currently, the district's four pupil personnel workers are responsible for the whereabouts of more than 4,200 elementary, middle and senior high students.

"It's an impossible load and makes the job of contacting the home very difficult, except in the most chronic of cases," Grainger said.

In contrast, Montgomery County -- where students fail a course if they have five unexcused absences -- has an attendance worker at each high school and uses parent volunteers to help find out if missing students are home sick.

In Prince George's County, computerized call-back systems have been installed in 18 of the 20 high schools. A schools spokeswoman said attendance improved by as much as 2 percent at six schools where the systems were used last year.

But even when vice principals or workers such as Grainger get through to parents, they are often greeted with a high degree of apathy, distrust or hostility, Pender said. Many parents lie for their children, and many students forge excuses, Pender said, echoing a complaint common to all school districts.

Many parents lose control when children reach 14 or 15, which is when the absentee figures start climbing, Pender said. "They get them up and out the door but never know if they make it to school.

"Sometimes the problem goes beyond mere attendance. The child or parent may have a drug problem or not have any clothes to wear to school. We try to be sensitive to these concerns and get these families help