School district targets tardiness


Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 3:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 3:15 p.m.

Racking up 20 or 30 unexcused absences in a school year can lead to a student repeating a grade level and a parent getting into legal trouble.

But chronic lateness to school is just as bad, and administrators are looking for a way to fix that.

"It's not an isolated problem," said Alachua County School Board Chairwoman Eileen Roy. There aren't large numbers of chronically tardy students at any one school, she said, but every school has a few students who rarely make it on time.

Roy and several others are part of a truancy committee seeking to identify why some students aren't getting to school on time and to figure out how to solve the problem.

During the school year, the School Attendance Review Board (SARB) meets monthly to discuss truancy issues.

But this is the first time the school district has addressed truancy as it applies to chronic tardiness, or a related problem — parents who frequently pick up their children before the end of the school day.

Gretchen Casey, director of victim services for the State Attorney's Office and SARB coordinator, is also on the committee.

Casey said SARB usually reviews only students with outstanding unexcused absences, but the number of unexcused tardies among elementary and middle school students is alarming.

"When you are missing upwards of 30 minutes, half of a class period, and your first period is reading ... it becomes particularly problematic," she said.

For students who are late 30 or 40 days out of a school year, that equates to missing a huge portion of the first-period class.

Katherine Munn, former principal of Littlewood Elementary School, said she had a few students last year with upwards of 50 or 60 late days — out of a total of 180 days in the school year.

Even after meeting with one parent about a child's chronic lateness, the same child was late the next day, she said. "I couldn't believe it. I was shocked," Munn said.

Munn, who is now principal of Oak View Middle School, said she would tell Littlewood parents how hard it is for children to catch up if they're missing so much time in the morning.

Elementary schools begin at 7:45 a.m., and a student's first class could be reading or math, crucial subjects for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and for grade promotion.

Parents cite numerous reasons for not being able to get their children to school on time, Munn said.

But the primary reason, she said, is "laziness, I think, from parents."

"Or they just don't think the child is missing anything important," she said.

At the other end of the day, there is a problem with parents picking up children early, complaining that it takes too long to wait in the line of cars that arrive before dismissal every day.

Munn said she has timed the pickup line, and it takes 11 to 12 minutes to clear.

Still, to avoid waiting in line, some parents would sign their children out of school early.

"It happens at every school," she said. "And you have the same ones every day."

In addition to putting students at risk for being held back, poor test scores caused by chronic lateness are reflected on teacher evaluations and in school grades, which affect school funding.

"It's a problem that's much bigger than (individual students)," Roy said.

The truancy committee is now in the process of reviewing students who have a significant number of unexcused absences and tardies. Enough unexcused absences could send a parent to court, although prosecution is a last resort.

Initially, Roy said she hoped to have a policy by the end of the summer that would equate a certain number of tardies with one absence.

"But I don't think that's legally possible," she said.

School Board attorney Brian Moore said legally, tardiness is usually brought up only when a parent or student is already under a court order for truancy. There are no policies in place to deal with partial absences.

"That's where we have problems," Moore said.

For now, the committee has said it hopes to be able to work with families and help wherever possible.

In some cases, it's a matter of getting family counseling or another stop on a bus route, or working with a homeless-student coordinator, she said.

But some parents just don't take responsibility," Roy said.

"It's not acceptable to say, ‘I couldn't get him up or dressed,' for an elementary school student, in my opinion."

Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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