Skip class and get away with it? Sounds great, especially on test days and when assignments are due.
That's what clever students are getting away with, some Broward County high school teachers say. They're exploiting a new district policy that was meant to solve one problem and is creating another.
Now, several Broward County School Board members want to reconsider the rule, which requires teachers to accept work from absent students — even if the absence was unexcused.
They say they've heard complaints from teachers and reports from students of teenagers hightailing it to Starbucks or sleeping through the first period of the day.
Honors English teacher Nicole Blands said nearly a quarter of her students did not show up for class recently when a major assignment was due.
"The kids are skipping," said Blands, who teaches at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. "They're getting away with it. They know they can get away with it, and they're essentially throwing in our faces that there's nothing we can do about it."
During a recent workshop, board member Laurie Rich Levinson read off emails of teachers who shared similar accounts. One said nearly half of her students have five or more absences this year; another said absences have almost doubled from the first quarter to third quarter of school, as word of the rule change spread among students.
A district survey found the new policy was favored by 58 percent of parents, 83 percent of high school principals and 70 percent of students. Among high school teachers, though, the responses sent an entirely different message — 72 percent did not want to allow makeup work for unexcused absences.
Until this year, missing class without a phone call from home or a note from a doctor meant an automatic zero on that day's work. The rule change, passed last May, was meant to stop academically penalizing students whose parents may not be engaged at school.
"We all know parents that know the system well and call in so that their son or daughter doesn't have any consequences," board member Patti Good said. "That happens every day. And yet, we also have students that don't have the ability to have their parents do that for them. That happens every day."
Administrators are reviewing the policy to see if changes should be made. This year's attendance figures are not yet available, making it difficult to fully assess the impact.
One idea some board members wanted to look into: creating non-academic penalties, such as barring students who miss class from attending events like prom or Graduation Night.
That kind of tactic is favored by most members of the Broward County Council of PTAs/PTSAs, said member Robert Mayersohn. He said most parents believe there should be consequences that don't hurt a student's grade.
"It's looking at, how do we change behavior, how do we help students grow," said Mayersohn, who also serves on the district's attendance committee. "How do we give the students appropriate consequences that educate them so they can be productive in their futures, whether it's going to post-secondary education or a career?"
Fifty-six percent of absences in Broward County schools were unexcused in the 2013-14 school year. High schools for at-risk students reported the highest rates, with one school averaging as many as 66 unexcused absences per student — or about a third of the academic year. Those schools also had some of the lowest graduation rates in the district.
Some school board members worry that having academic consequences for those who miss school could hinder them even more.
"In the end, our job is to get them ready to cross the finish line and not be punitive in the process," school board member Nora Rupert said at the time.
Policies on whether to accept work from students with unexcused absences vary by district.
In Miami-Dade, administrators leave it up to teachers to decide. They stress that regular attendance matters, and the district's policy is aimed at encouraging regular attendance and establishing high expectations, spokesman John Schuster said.
Palm Beach County requires that makeup work be accepted regardless of whether the absence was excused or unexcused, a change made in recent years, said Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald.
He said he hasn't heard reports of increased absenteeism. The goal is to ensure students are successful and to remove barriers from students who are already behind.
"It's important that we remember we're in the business of educating kids, and this is a policy that's good for kids," Oswald said. "Kids are kids. Sometimes they're going to make stupid mistakes. But let's not give them consequences that can change the trajectory of the rest of their lives."
To Blands in Parkland, though, the makeup policy isn't working. She said she's had to write new tests about 10 times this year, after students missed class and she was concerned they'd get the answers from a classmate.
On days students don't come to English class, she said she's seen them at school later in the day. One gave her a fist-bump.
"Essentially what we're doing, in my opinion, is we're rewarding behavior that is not appropriate," Blands said. "We're rewarding them for skipping. We're giving them extra time to study or do something they should have already done. And it makes no sense to me."
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Elementary schools in Marion County will say goodbye to everyday homework in the coming school year after Superintendent Heidi Maier said research shows it does not enhance learning.
Maier, who took office in November, notified parents and teachers of the change at the district’s 31 elementary schools on Wednesday via automated phone message. The new rule will not apply to high school and middle school students.
District public information officer Kevin Christian says the district is calling on parents to replace traditional homework assignments with 20-minute reading sessions in hopes of “getting parents and students involved in something they can do together and enjoy.”
READ MORE: One Miami-Dade school says no to homework; will others follow?
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The research Maier cites was conducted by University of Tennessee professor Richard Allington, who specializes in theory and practice in teacher education. The crux of his findings? Reading to a child has more benefits than homework.
Christian summarized the research this way: “Homework for the sake of homework is not advantageous for a student. It isn’t constructive and doesn’t provide a meaningful learning experience.”
He said district leaders would instead like to see bonding time happen between students and their parents, as well as give students the freedom to consume material that genuinely interests them. When it comes to how students learn, he said, “we want them to own it.”
When asked if doing away with homework will slow the pace of learning, Christian noted that less homework should translate to more teaching time in the classroom, as teachers will not be as tied up with grading assignments.
READ MORE: Homework battle pits parents against teachers at School Board meeting
Teachers will still have the authority to assign homework, but will be encouraged to do so sparingly and only for larger projects, like the science fair, Christian said.
The district plans to use its electronic flyer service and automated voice messages to remind parents of the new initiative throughout the school year. Those who need help picking reading material can contact their child’s school media center for recommendations.
“We believe it is going to enhance what is already going on in the classroom,” he said, adding that the district has received no negative comments about the change.
READ MORE: New school year, same homework battles