Glacier High School is reintroducing an attendance incentive this year with a goal to reduce absenteeism.
Through the incentive, students may miss a maximum of four allowable absences in a class, per semester, and then are exempt from final exams. Eligible students may still opt to take exams if they think it will improve their grade.
The decision to add the incentive follows an attendance policy review that began in the fall and wrapped up in June. Flathead High School also underwent an attendance policy review.
The incentive was initially in place when Glacier opened in 2007, but was discontinued around 2011-12, according to Glacier High School Principal Micah Hill.
Over the years, Glacier and Flathead high schools have tried various attendance incentives and policies to keep students in class and participating in discussions, small groups and hands-on activities.
“Attendance, it’s an age-old problem. No one’s figured out a solution for improving attendance, but everyone agrees student attendance is important,” Hill said. “Being in class is important.”
What changed in this iteration of the attendance incentive is the number of allowable absences per semester. Previously, it was two days, according to Hill.
“We think this is more realistic,” Hill said, noting that it’s under the “chronically absent” mark, which the U.S. Department of Education defines as students who miss 10 percent of the school year (about 18 days).
Flathead decided to add a day to the number of allowable absences in its existing policy, capping it at three per semester in a class.
Hill looked at attendance rates from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection report, which showed 15.4% of Glacier students were chronically absent in 2015-16.
There are penalties in place for chronic and unexcused absences, but Hill said a punitive approach is typically not successful, drawing from his experience handling attendance for 11 years in his former position as an assistant principal at the school.
“A kid who misses 45 days of school isn’t going to change because we gave a lunch detention,” Hill said.
He looks at the incentive through a similar lens in serving as one option to encourage students to come to class.
“The goal is to reduce the number of chronically absent students. You can’t just do it through the incentive. For some students that’s just not going to work,” Hill said, noting there are other programs, interventions and systems of support in place.
The incentive is also an effort to deter students from missing school for reasons such as skipping the day before/after a school break, skiing or hunting, he said, giving some examples.
Hill noted chronic absences do not always translate to poor grades.
“What we really wrestled with is how did all of that look when a student has —” he said, pausing, “You can have a student who missed 45 days of school and gets ‘Ds’ and ‘Fs’ and a student who misses 45 days and gets ‘As’ because one is diligent in making up work and the other student doesn’t.”
The issue of absenteeism, even for the students who manage to maintain good grades, is that administrators and educators like Hill believe classroom participation in discussions, group projects, labs and other collaborative activities are critical to a students’ learning and development and that “not all learning takes place, or is assessed, on worksheets or tests,” Hill said, which also came up in Flathead’s discussion on attendance.
State funding for schools is also based on regular student attendance.
“If we can get our students here more often — that’s the goal,” Hill said.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.