With the Lakeville Area School Board approving the district’s plan to set up a new school attendance policy, the biggest surprise might be that it will be the first of its kind in Lakeville.

“The district actually never had an attendance policy,” said Renae Ouillette, executive director of Special Education and Student Services.

Aside from adhering to some of the basic principles of the Minnesota statute regarding attendance, Lakeville schools have gotten by with handling such issues without any set guidelines or parameters.

“I think there has been hesitancy from certain board members to have a hard-and-fast policy,” Ouillette said. “But I think what they didn’t understand is that by not having a policy, you really do have a policy. We weren’t following the state statute, and we were all over the place. There was a lack of consistency.”

Research continues to show that students are best served by being in class as much as possible, so the new plan, Ouillette said, has not been put in place to punish kids for missing school but to stress the importance of being there.

“Our attendance has been really good,” Ouillette said. “Approximately 95 percent of our kids are in school on a given day. However, if you look at the data by student, we see that there are some students that we would describe as chronically absent.

“Chronically absent is defined as those who miss 10 percent or more of school days per year, or on track to miss 10 percent. Most our schools have a certain population of students that have been chronically absent. There are kids who have chronic illnesses, and we understand that. But there are kids who are chronically absent who don’t have legitimate reasons for missing that much school.

“So we had to tighten up the policy and make it clear to parents what is excused, what isn’t excused and why we want to have their kids in school. In does affect the students’ long-term success. Research has shown that for students who are chronically absent in third and fourth grade, their chances of graduating from high school are reduced.”

The new policy lists 11 situations that qualify as excused absences (illness, family emergency, medical appointment among them) as well as what will now be considered unexcused absences (including missing the bus, oversleeping and determining it to be too cold). Ouillette said the district have heard all of those reasons, and more.

“We want parents to understand that the research that is out there says that when kids come to school they do better,” Ouillette said. “And that starts with kindergarten and early elementary. So we want to help parents understand that just being able to make up the work isn’t the same as being in school and being involved in the instructional activities that happen.”

One area where the policy differs from the Minnesota statute is that five days a year are allowed for family vacations or student activities outside the school-based activities that will not be considered unexcused.

State laws regarding school attendance are in place once the child reaches the age of 7. In cases when the family is not responding to the school’s attempts to identify the problem and correct it, the district can contact the county and report educational neglect.

“We know things happen, and you can have unexcused absences. It doesn’t mean if you get one you are going to be punished,” Ouillette said. “But when they become systemic then we have to intervene.”

Ouillette stressed that the district will continue to look for a solution in hopes of avoiding having to get the county involved.

“We’ve had kids over the years that have significant school phobia,” Ouillette said. “The parents get them to the parking lot and can’t get them out of the car. There are some significantly complex situations, but we are going to continue working with the family to resolve them.”

Dean Spiros can be reached at lakeville.thisweek@ecm-inc.com.

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