Tuesday, January 25, 2011

And why so many parents are receiving letters their child is truant
By Diana L. Chapman
Even though most Los Angeles schools will be back in action in the summer heat mid-August with its new official start date, one family  paid for a family reunion not knowing the school district would change the playing field.
Their kids will not return the first week of school their first semester during the summer after the school board voted to start school Aug. 15.  
The question now is this: will their children be considered truants?
Another father complained, along with the swell of others changes mucking up the Los Angeles Unified School District due to budget cuts, the early start convinced him to start searching for alternatives to public high school for his straight-A daughter.
And in the case of my family, we  don’t have to worry about starting school early. We haven’t paid or planned our vacation yet. But we were worrying about a terse truancy letter involving our 17-year-old son when we arrived home from our holidays in January.
This flock of ongoing changes made some parents, including me, feel, well, somewhat ambushed.
Now, the district is scrambling to determine how best to handle incoming students who miss several weeks at the start of school due to already planned and paid for vacations.
In January, the Los Angeles school board voted  6-1 to have all its schools start mid-August, rather than the traditional fall date of Sept. 5 or after. Neither parents or teachers were given much warning and the change will happen this coming school year.
 While school officials believe this will improve test scores and grades, School Board Member Richard Vladovic who is up for re-election in March and who oversees the Harbor Area,  voted against the measure.
 He contended, while he would likely approve it in the future, that it was poorly timed, parents had little chance to give their input and that LAUSD should wait  until the remainder of its schools currently on year-round track return to a traditional schedule next year.
His objections were quickly voted down.
Tentatively, school administrators currently say students returning late to school will be taken on a case-by-case basis, explained  Mike Romero, superintendent of District 8, which includes all the Harbor Area and central portions of Los Angeles.
“I told our principals that the schools should be flexible and understanding,” Romero explained, “for a non-refundable vacation or a wedding or a reunion, I articulated that to our principals. I want to propose that our thinking be humane.”
 Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines suggested exactly that philosophy, Romero said.
But getting all the schools on the same map could be tricky.
David Kooper, Vladovic’s chief of staff, indicated that absent students starting Aug. 15 can no longer be dropped from class after the first three days of school – as has been done traditionally in the past. Campuses will now have to determine whether each of those students was excused for their holidays.
Excused students, Kooper said, should receive ample amount of time to make up their work and parents can warn schools ahead of time of their plans.
In the meantime, another issue cropped up involving student absences. So many schools had neglected to follow a state education code that demands parents be notified immediately if their child reached three unexcused absences.
To fulfill that, the district began sending out a swath of automated letters from its downtown headquarters, shocking some parents who had never received such notices before.
This is what led to my son and many other families receiving truancy letters with little warning, school officials explained. The letter  threatened actions such as a student having their driver’s license yanked or delayed.
 “That letter is alarming, I know,” agrees Romero, the head of District 8. “But it’s been part of the education code for a long time and now it’s centralized. But it’s about the importance of attendance.”
Our son’s absences were actually excused, so I was able to rectify the problem writing letters. But it was a shock nonetheless, and while I agree the district needs to go after truants, it’s always a pleasure to have a warning. We received none.
Having written a column earlier about this plethora of changes, I urged that the second largest school district in the nation, with nearly 700,000 students, be broken up. I believe it’s too large to get a handle on itself and is a sinking ship.
Kooper, Vladovic’s deputy, disagreed:
 “We have real reform happening at our schools now,” he said. “We have great teachers, administrators, custodians, and other school site employees at our schools,” Kooper said. “The district would like nothing more than to provide our schools what we have in the past, but the budgetary shortfall coming from Sacramento is simply too much to bear.
 “Over 80 % percent of the LAUSD budget is used to pay for employees. When we have to cut funding from our schools, we are losing these valuable employees.”
As far as truancy now being handled in a more timely manner,  Kooper added, “Truancy is a real problem in our district. If students are not in school they are not learning. The goal of reducing truancy has always been an issue. But with newer technology, there are many more ways to notify parents and outside agencies that children are truant.”

In addition, truant students cost the district money. Schools are paid ADA – or an average daily attendance rate – about $30 per student a day.
While administrators say ADA is not the reason they are going after truants, Romero said  that his region’s goal is to jump at least one percent in student attendance. That increase would bring about $3.7 million to the district’s coffers.
All I can say is, I can’t wait to see what change comes next and whether parents will be included in the mix.