While the High Country is known as a prime vacation spot, the local school district is struggling to keep kids in class.
In a Nov. 21 letter addressed to Summit School District families, Superintendent Heidi Pace said as of Nov. 15 there were nearly 10,000 absences recorded at the nine schools since the beginning of the school year in August.
Those 9,994 absences include illnesses, but do not include times students were tardy to school or left early, said district spokeswoman Julie McCluskie.
As part of an effort to reduce the number of absences, the district has proposed amending its policy on student absences and excuses to no longer include vacations as excused absences.
However, in 2012 over the same period of time — the first 60 days of school — there were 9,576 recorded absences, and 10,346 in 2011. McCluskie said while the numbers look fairly consistent and there is no drastic difference this year, expectations are higher now and the district is trying to help students and teachers meet rising student learning goals and teacher accountability.
“The real goal here is to raise awareness about attendance and have parents be more aware of things like trying to schedule appointments outside of school time, or taking vacations during scheduled breaks,” she said.
Summit School District parent Kelly Ash has a student in the middle school and one at Breckenridge Elementary and works as a property manager with her husband. She said her “bread and butter” months for business usually fall when the school has breaks scheduled, making it hard to leave work and vacation during those times.
“Their calendar is not conducive to families that work and thrive through the tourist industry,” she said. “School started in the middle of August, which is a peak time as business owners, and of course Christmas and months like February are really important too. It’s hard when you feel like they don’t understand the community in which we live.”
In her letter to parents, Pace said attendance matters, stating: “Our teachers are held accountable for your child’s performance in school and even excused absences can affect performance.”
State statute defines chronic absenteeism, or “habitual truant,” which may result in judicial proceedings, as four unexcused absences during any one month, or 10 unexcused absences in a school year. Pace sent out a second letter on Wednesday, Dec. 4, explaining she wanted “to emphasize that it is always our practice to first partner with students and their families to try and reduce chronic tardiness and/or absenteeism before pursuing a solution through the courts.”
“I think some parents might have misunderstood,” McCluskie said. “There is a state law about attendance, and we included it in that first letter to explain why we take it so seriously. Having said that, the district works with families to resolve cases of chronic absenteeism or tardiness.”
The Colorado Department of Education’s definition of truancy is as follows: “If a student is absent without an excuse by the parent/guardian or if the student leaves school or a class without permission of the teacher or administrator in charge, it will be considered to be an unexcused absence and the student shall be considered truant.”
In the 2012-2013 school year, most Summit School District elementary schools had an attendance rate of about 94 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Snowy Peaks High School had the lowest attendance rate last year, at almost 78 percent. Summit High School came in with about 91 percent attendance.
Ash said getting to take vacations can often give children learning opportunities outside of the classroom, so she doesn’t believe something like vacation time might negatively impact her kids.
“The test scores are so heavily weighted these days, and they are still very high, even though (Breckenridge Elementary) has the highest absentee rate of anyone in the district,” she said. “We live in a place where we’re a unique community and a unique culture.”
Kerry Buhler, principal at Upper Blue Elementary, said she hopes that while the absentee rates are not any worse this year than in the past, raising awareness about the issue will help get more kids in class.
“We can’t make a perfect calendar for everybody,” she said. “We don’t want people to feel bad about choices they’re making. The bottom line is it’s really about the kids.”
Buhler said the last thing she wants to do as a principal is penalize her students, and hopes to look at all issues — not just vacations, she said, but other reasons a student might be absent like transportation or personal problems.
“Of course, we’re not taking 7-year-olds to truancy court,” she said. “We want to work with families. We want the kids as much as we can have them here, while also being respectful of the fact that life happens.”
The revised student attendance and excuses policy will be discussed at the next Board of Education meeting at approximately 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10, at the central office located on School Road near the middle school. An online survey for families regarding this issue will be available through Friday, Dec. 6, on the Summit School District website.
“Their calendar is not conducive to families that work and thrive through the tourist industry. School started in the middle of August, which is a peak time as business owners, and of course Christmas and months like February are really important too. It’s hard when you feel like they don’t understand the community in which we live.”
Parent of two Summit School District students