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SUNDAY, JULY 1, 2007
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OP-ED

Have city schools lost sight of goals?

By Bob Slate

Rules are rules and, especially in public schools they must be strictly enforced to maintain order.

But when rules become counterproductive, it is advisable to review and revise them. That may be the case with Decatur City Schools’ rigid attendance policy.

I know this only because my daughter, Rebecca, has been trapped in high school limbo.

Rebecca was a junior last year at Austin High School. She has a medical condition that resulted in her absence about 20 days during the second semester. Her grades suffered from missing so many classes.

Anticipating the problem, my wife, Maryemily, met with the assistant principal, Chip Miller, several times to discuss Rebecca’s attendance. They discussed the possibility of a homebound teacher, but Miller assured Maryemily that as long as Rebecca had a doctor’s excuse — and sufficient grades, of course — she would receive proper credit.

The absences took a toll. She did not achieve passing grades in two classes, history and chemistry, in which daily attendance is crucial. But she made sufficient grades to pass her five other classes.

So imagine my surprise when her report card said “NCA”; she would receive no credit for any of her second-semester classes, even the ones for which she earned passing grades. It turns out that Miller had no say in the decision. It was up to Principal Don Snow.

I appealed the decision and asked that she be given credit for the classes in which she earned passing grades. After an investigation, Superintendent Dr. Sam Houston upheld Snow’s decision to withhold credit for all classes.

The Austin High School counseling staff has put together a schedule that will allow Rebecca to graduate on time next year. It includes summer school and evening classes at the school system’s Horizon High School.

But it seems ridiculous that Rebecca did not get credit for drama, for example, in which she earned an “A” grade and participated in the production of “The Wizard of Oz”; or that she must re-take junior English in summer school.

Rebecca had a sufficient score to pass Honors English, in which she wrote a five-page, footnoted research paper with a bibliography and in which she read “A Farewell to Arms,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Great Gatsby” and wrote an essay comparing and contrasting the heroes of those novels. But, because she did not receive credit due to her “excessive absenteeism,” she must take junior English in summer school — a class in which she will be learning to write complete sentences and to differentiate between verbs and nouns — skills she developed several years ago.

How valuable that class will be to her education!

It seems odd that she will get credit for a class teaching skills she mastered long ago, but will get no credit for the work she did on the research paper or reading classic American literature. What does this tell us about what Decatur City Schools values in education?

When school rules impede the goal of providing students the best possible education, it may be time to review and revise the rules.

It might be easy to discount my daughter’s situation as an unfortunate but rare occurrence.

According to Assistant Superintendent Ed Nichols, 60 students at Decatur High School and 68 at Austin received NCAs (no credit) during the second semester alone, although not all of them were the result of a medical condition.

Maryemily, concerned that the schools’ attendance policy may discourage children from persevering to graduate, asked Snow about Austin’s dropout rate.

“How many children do you have?” he asked her.

When she told him Rebecca was our youngest of three, Snow replied: “Then your dropout rate is 33 percent.”

That’s certainly a unique way to motivate parents to get involved in their children’s education.

Bob Slate is a copy editor.

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