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How much school can a student miss?

Sitka school board president Lon Garrison (r) congratulates student representative Jesseca Bartelds on her year of service on the board. The two agreed in principle -- if not in practice -- that absenteeism due to travel was a problem. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Sitka school board president Lon Garrison (r) congratulates student representative Jesseca Bartelds on her year of service on the board. The two agreed in principle — if not in practice — that absenteeism due to travel was a problem. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The high cost of travel for extracurricular activities in Sitka’s schools has been an ongoing debate for years. Now, the school board is going to take a hard look at whether travel costs students and parents more than just money.

At its regular meeting Monday night (5-6-13), the board officially opened the question of whether Sitka’s students — and the teachers who coach them — spend too much time away from class.

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For some kids, it’s a trip here and a trip there. For junior Ryan Apathy, who participates in Cross Country in the fall, and then in Drama, Debate, and Forensics through early spring, it can be consecutive weekends of competition. If those events are out of town, Apathy and his teammates will likely miss Thursday and Friday of school for travel.

And Apathy is also in Music, which accounts for three out of a total of:

“Ten trips this year, and missed 22 days.”

Nevertheless Apathy is succeeding in school, and excelling in the activities he’s involved in. Sitka’s school board is concerned that Apathy, and kids like him, are the exception, rather than the rule.

“We had a math audit that said that by the time a high school student is a junior, they’re already a year behind in Math. In terms of the amount of time they have been in class if they’re involved in activities,” said board president Lon Garrison, who’s interested in exploring a policy implemented recently in the Unalaska School District. The policy limits students to twenty absences from school per year for activities.

“It’s not a policy coming from a district that is just kind of doing ho-hum. It’s a policy coming from a very remote district that deals with logistical issues like we do, but is also very high-performing.”

The Sitka School District doesn’t have a policy in place that specifically limits absences like this. It covers only excused and unexcused absences. Setting a hard cap is new.

Speaking from the audience, Sitka High activities director Mike Vieira wondered if it would have any impact. “I would be shocked,” he said, “if we had more than a handful of students who had missed twenty days.”

Student board member Jesse Bartelds, in her final meeting, wondered if the policy was missing the point.

“We already have a policy where if you have a certain grade in a class, then you can’t go on a trip. And I think it’s the student’s job to maintain that.”

Bartelds is also in a lot of activities, in which she excels. And she keeps up her grades. She and Ryan Apathy get that they’re not necessarily the kids the board is worried about. But they both have insight into the problem.

KCAW – Is it true that for some kids, being in class is a make-or-break thing for their grades?
Apathy – Absolutely. If you’re not there to hear what the content of the class is, you’re not going to do well on the test, or whatever it is you’re required to know to get the credit for the class.
Bartelds – I know that at the beginning of the year a lot of teachers were gone due to coaching activities, and it was tough not having them there, and needing them. The sub couldn’t really answer questions. I don’t want to be unfair in saying that there should be more restricted days for teachers than for students, but it is a detriment to the student body as a whole if teachers are gone as much as the students are.

Schools superintendent Steve Bradshaw agreed to collect data on how many students are gone, for how long, and for what reasons, before the board reopened the question of a hard cap on absences at a June work session.

Bradshaw has always expressed a belief in whole-student education. He has reservations about boxing students — and educators — into limits that may somehow backfire.

“I’m real concerned when we go down that path of setting hard policy, because normally it ends up trapping the school board, superintendent, and principals more so than the students. So you’ve got to be cautious with it.”

The Sitka School Board will hold a work session on attendance on Tuesday June 4, 7 PM in the district office board room.

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