Attendance policy keeps kids in school

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When John Jursa became principal of Prosser Career Academy four years ago, his first goal was to return order to a school that had just seen its principal, assistant principal and entire local school council dismissed in a grade-fixing scandal.

At the time, Prosser’s attendance rate hovered around a mediocre 82 percent, some 180 students were tardy each day, and class cuts went virtually unchecked.

Jursa took on these numbers with a combination of tough new attendance policies and new programs to help students stay engaged in their studies.

Within a year, the attendance rate at the Northwest Side school rose by five percentage points, and daily tardies dropped to 60. Today, its 90 percent attendance rate ranks in the top 10 citywide. Meanwhile, the percentage of students scoring at or above the national norms in reading doubled from 20.8 in 1996 to 40.6 in 1998, putting it 10 points above the citywide average.

In addition, says Donna Beveridge, coordinator of the attendance office, “We do almost everything in our power” before dropping students for unexcused absences. Legally, schools can drop students 16 and older who miss 20 school days in a row, but Prosser rarely drops a student before 40 to 60 days of unexcused absences, she says.

Carlos Enriquez, a Prosser graduate who now works there as a bilingual aid and security monitor, sums up the transformation: “From the time I was here to the time I came back, the school has changed completely.”

Jursa says that when he arrived at Prosser, “there were no attendance policies.”

Shortly thereafter, there were: Any student who cuts class, skips required tutoring or accumulates five late arrivals to school is sent to an “alternative attendance area,” a second-floor landing that has been converted into a doorless classroom. Once the attendance office notifies the students’ parent or guardian, the student can return to class. However, if the parent doesn’t come to the school the next day to “reinstate” the student officially, it’s back to Room 250. On any given day, the alternative attendance area is home to about 20 of the schools 1,200 students.

Students who are tardy to classes during the day receive before- or after-school detention.

Between classes, halls “clear out pretty quick” because students know the consequences of being tardy or cutting, says drafting instructor Frank Cassello. “We nip it right in the bud,” he says. “One cut, and you’re out.” But he adds that it’s important to keep even these students inside the school. “I think where some schools make a mistake is with out-of-school suspension,” he explains, saying students often see suspension as a “holiday.”

Jursa says the school has a “zero tolerance” policy on class cutting because “it’s an indication that there’s a serious problem with the child’s attitude, and it has to be addressed immediately.”

Jursa believes parents are central to the solution. “Parents have to know [when students] are not in school,” he says. “They also have to have some communication with us, knowing that we care enough to call without being too intrusive on their jobs.”

According to Jursa, parents “almost overwhelmingly … support the policies,” which were mailed to every household when they took effect.

Beveridge says that contacting parents typically brings children in line. But she adds, “I’ve had [parents] say to me, ‘You should be happy that they’re here, and it doesn’t make any difference if they’re tardy or not.’ Well, it does make a difference, because we’re training these students to go out into the real world, where if you’re tardy to work, it’s not going to take too long before you’ll be fired.”

For students whose parents never come, Prosser steps in. “Sometimes we have to reinstate them, or otherwise they mold up there,” says attendance staff member Nancy Cura.

Students also confirm the importance of parents. “If they didn’t call my parents, I probably would cut,” confesses senior Doyle Tunnat, Jr.

Monica Tapia, a senior, agrees. “Our freshman year, we used to cut all the time,” she recalls. “Now it’s harder.”

Sophomore Justin Jones adds that security monitors who patrol inside and outside the building also deter students from skipping school. “It’s hard to cut and not get caught,” he says.

Through the School Board’s Truancy Outreach Program (TOP), Prosser also has three part-time workers who call the homes of absent students to check on the reasons. Every day, each makes about 80 calls, keeping meticulous records in ledger books.

“I’ve been at other schools that didn’t have policies like this, and I didn’t see any great progress,” says guidance counselor Patricia Foreman, a 27-year veteran of CPS.

Foreman says most truants mend their ways after spending time in the alternative attendance area. Only “a handful,” she says, have serious truancy problems. “With this small group,” she explains, “there’s something else going on.”

Jursa agrees. “Sometimes we can’t even imagine the things that they’ve been through,” he says. “They may have spent the last two days in a Kosovo-like setting without any stability or love or caring or even the basic necessities of life in their homes.”

Prosser also tries to motivate students to attend school regularly with more extracurricular activities and monthly contests for best division attendance.

Mandatory tutoring for freshmen and sophomores aims to catch students before they fail and eventually drop out. Every two weeks, teachers can assign lagging students to an extra period of tutoring; counselors notify students’ parents, asking them to monitor their child’s performance as well.

Foreman, who helps oversee the program, says tutoring prevented 34 percent of students who were on track to fail a course from eventually getting an F.

She says tutoring, coupled with firm attendance rules, are paying off. “If we didn’t have this policy, I think we would lose a lot more kids.”