High school committee approves new position to handle discipline duties

— File photo by Susan Safford

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee approved the addition of a new intervention coordinator position for the remainder of the current school year at a meeting Monday night. Principal Gil Traverso said the position is necessary to deal with a new state law that mandates changes in discipline and attendance policies that places a greater — and unfunded — burden on schools.

The new law, Chapter 222 of the Acts of 2012, requires school districts to provide alternative educational services for students who are suspended from school for more than 10 consecutive days or expelled from school, and to pay for the associated costs. MVRHS has opted to offer them access to assignments through Edline or the guidance department, tutoring provided in a neutral setting, online course work, or night school if established at MVRHS.

The new law also requires that schools notify parents if a child is absent from school and they have not received notification of the absence from a parent within three days. In addition, public schools are required to meet with parents of a student with five or more unexcused absences in a year to develop an action plan to improve his or her attendance.

A student is counted as absent if not present for two consecutive class periods, which constitutes a half-day at MVRHS, or the whole day, according to state law.

Absences and poor grades

In discussing the need for an intervention coordinator, Mr. Traverso provided a handout to the school committee with data regarding students with five or more unexcused absences and their grades.

In the 2013-2014 school year, Mr. Traverso said 463 students, or 68 percent of the total enrollment of 681, had five or more unexcused absences. Of those, 149 had overall scores resulting in a grade of D- or F, which was 22 percent of the total student body. Seventy-four students had F grades, which amounted to 11 percent of the total student body.

“Those are pretty staggering numbers,” Mr. Traverso said. “So you had students who received an F, and with a little bit of an intervention, those students could have been put over the top into a passing grade area average,” he said.

Mr. Traverso also noted that the high school’s average daily attendance last year was 94.13 percent.

“And I think that can seriously be improved if we do have an intervention coordinator that will work closely with students that pop up on the radar in the process that we’re going to be putting into place for addressing students that have these excessive absences,” he said.

Mr. Traverso followed up by raising the big question: “How are we going to pay for all this?”

MVRHS account manager Mark Friedman was ready with the numbers. He said there is about $113,000 available in the FY14 school budget due to savings in salaries for newly hired personnel that came in under budget and two vacant special education assistant positions that will not be filled this year. Mr. Friedman estimated that the salary for an intervention coordinator, prorated for six months, would be about $45,000.

“There are monies available in this year’s budget to do this, if that is the will of this committee,” Mr. Friedman said. “For the FY16 budget process, we’ll have to go back and take another look.”

Assistant principal Elliott Bennett told the school committee that the new coordinator’s duties would include developing behavioral support plans for students with five or more unexcused absences, and meeting with students, parents, guidance counselors, teachers, and special education staff to create a proactive program to keep the attendance rates up. The intervention coordinator would also help students with deficits in organizational skills that contribute to absences and create a relationship with them and their families. The job would also involve some home visits.

In addition, the intervention coordinator would be available to provide online support or to help administer online classes for students trying to make up credits.

The school committee voted unanimously to support the new position for the current fiscal year.

Off parents’ radar

The new law took effect on July 1. In an interview with The Times on Monday afternoon, Ms. Bennett and Andrew Berry, also an MVRHS assistant principal, said it has become very apparent that many parents are unaware of what it entails by the growing number of students with more than five unexcused absences.

“The law has changed; parents are going to be hearing from us if their child misses five days in a year, unexcused,” Mr. Berry said. “The same is true for all students Island-wide, in all grades.”

Parents are required to call the attendance office before school, if their child is going to be absent. However, that phone call does not automatically qualify the absence as excused.

The new law allows students only two parent-excused absences per academic quarter. The school nurse may grant up to two exemptions per academic quarter, with medical proof.

The list of reasons for excused absences is narrowly defined: prolonged or continuing illness or quarantine certified by a doctor that are serious enough to require more than five days’ absence; bereavement or serious illness in the family; weather inclement enough to endanger a child’s health; up to three documented college visits for juniors and seniors; school-sponsored trips or activities; a pre-planned, approved individual program; and observance of major religious holidays.

Students must bring a note from their parents or guardians on their return to school. Parents or guardians must submit a written or emailed explanation to the school within three days of the absence. Medical excuses must be given to the school nurse. All other excuses must be submitted to the attendance secretary.

“For the most part, we don’t have kids exceeding the number of unexcused absences because of sickness,” Mr. Berry said. “Usually if they are out three days or more, their parents would want to take them to a doctor.”

There is no limit on medically-excused absences, he added. However, a call and a note from a parent isn’t enough; a note from a medical professional is required.

“We really need parents to provide that written excuse so we can do this the right way and help them out,” Mr. Berry said. Otherwise, he added, once a student has five unexcused absences, the assistant principals will be sending out a letter to parents asking them to call the school.

Unfunded mandate burdensome

Ms. Bennett, who oversees grades 11 and 12, said she has 27 students currently on her list. She had meetings last week with seven of them and their parents to come up with a behavioral support plan, as the law requires. Mr. Berry, who oversees grades 9 and 10, said he had five meetings last week.

Ms. Bennett said the meetings involve not only the student but also parents and a guidance counselor. “We talk about the consequences of being absent and why it’s important to be in school, and how staying in school affects your goals,” she said. “We’re coming at it from the standpoint of this is why you need to be in school. We want to help you reach those goals and be as successful as you can.”

The behavioral modification plan includes finding solutions to the underlying causes for repeated absences, Ms. Bennett added.

“You can’t wake up to make it to the bus? A parent may have to get more involved by dropping the student off at the stop on the way work,” she said.

Both Ms. Bennett and Mr. Berry said parents have been very receptive at the meetings, as they are oftentimes frustrated by their children’s absences from school, too.

While the two assistant principals spoke highly of the intent of the stricter attendance requirements, they said the process is tremendously time-consuming for them. As Mr. Berry pointed out, “Over the last five to ten years, expectations from the state for assistant principals have really expanded, but the number of hours hasn’t.”

The school committee’s approval of the intervention coordinator’s position will definitely be a welcome change for them. In the meantime, however, they said they are hoping that more parents will become aware of the new law’s requirements.