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FILLING THE EMPTY SEATS

Before the recent labor turmoil took everyone's mind off the classroom, the Buffalo School Board approved an attendance policy for its 47,000 students that should be applauded by parents and students, alike. It's an initiative that will help prepare students not only for the challenges of new state standards, but for life.

For the first time, students who miss more than 15 percent of their classes face automatic failure. Surprisingly, this is the first districtwide policy on attendance.

For years, some board members had been pushing for a districtwide attendance policy. Lethargy and inertia in the system kept a districtwide plan from being implemented. This year, board members were determined to make attendance a priority, according to board member Donald A. Van Every. His colleague, the Rev. Darius Pridgen, guided the proposal through the board, which approved it in a 6-3 vote.

Previously, the district adhered to state guidelines that required students to attend school every day. However, there were no specific provisions if that didn't happen. In other words, a student could miss half the school year and still take the state or district exam.

Only 4 to 5 percent of the students cause significant attendance problems, according to Maxine Hare, director of attendance. But those students have a negative effect beyond their numbers on the students who do show up regularly. The absentees hold the class back and make it more difficult for teachers to cover the material they need to get through.

By threatening automatic failure, the board may get more of those chronic absentees to show up and learn. That's not a bad theory given the rigorous demands of new state standards. Besides, students may as well get used to checking in every day. After all, there are few, if any, jobs that allow employees to miss work more than 15 percent of the time.

For students on a 180-day schedule, missing more than 15 percent of the school year amounts to 28 days or 14 days a semester. Beyond the extreme - such as a medical excuse - such a high number of absences is unacceptable. There is no more debilitating problem to a child's learning than absence, according to Jeremy Finn, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. The correlation between attendance and academic achievement is very strong.

Many of these chronic absentees have personal and family problems that cause them to miss school on a regular basis. Now that the schools have won the right to bring in outside counselors, those problems can begin to be addressed. But those counselors can't have an effect unless the kids walk into the school building. Implementing a strict attendance policy may help ensure their presence.

It remains to be seen how effective the new policy will be. But doing nothing is not an acceptable option. For now, at least there's a plan in place that will make it easier to monitor students.

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