Absent children can hurt schools

Playing hookey hadn't been much of a concern for Richmond County schools until recent years.

Pupils could skip school as much as they wanted as long as they passed their classes, Deputy Superintendent James Thompson said.

"Since No Child Left Behind, we have to focus on attendance," Mr. Thompson said. "Years ago, a student could miss 60 days of school and if they passed, they passed. Since No Child Left Behind wasn't in effect, those 60 days were just absences."

The federal law, which went into effect in 2002, measures the percentage of pupils taking high-stakes tests and the percentage passing, but it also requires schools to select what is called a second indicator.

In Georgia, most elementary and middle schools, including those in Richmond County, use attendance as this measure.

If 15 percent of a school's student body misses more than 15 days of school for any reason, including legitimate medical excuses, the school won't make adequate yearly progress. The same is true for populations within the school, such as racial groups, low-income pupils and pupils with disabilities.

Because of this, one pupil missing one day can be the difference between a school making AYP and one that does not.

A year ago, Richmond County middle school principals met with school board members to discuss the challenges they face in making AYP. A common theme was truancy.

In the 2006-07 school year, 3,179 Richmond County pupils had more than 15 absences, according to The Augusta Chronicle's analysis of state records. Thirty-one missed more school than they attended, and 19 missed 100 days or more.

When AYP results were released in late July, however, only Wilkinson Gardens Elementary School missed meeting the target -- by two pupils in the disabled category.

One pupil's excessive absences prevented Tutt Middle School from making adequate yearly progress a year earlier.

And in 2004, Cheryl Fry's first year as principal at Langford Middle, the school failed to make AYP because one pupil left halfway through state testing.

"We may have special-education kids who are very fragile who have to be absent," Mrs. Fry said. "Attendance is something we can't control."

Despite the challenges posed by truancy, namely that it's largely out of educators' hands, school officials have no plans to change attendance as the second indicator for AYP.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.