Student attendance rates rose dramatically in Buffalo high schools this year. However, the new attendance policy that prompted the increase also is preventing hundreds of students from taking final exams.
At Grover Cleveland High School, for instance, about 150 of the 808 students were not allowed to take some or all of their exams because they missed more than 15 percent of their classes in a particular subject. In some cases, the crackdown means students won't graduate on time.
That was the downside of a policy that, overall, resulted in more students attending more classes this year. As of May 25, districtwide attendance was 92.35 percent, a sizable jump from last year's rate of 90.6 percent.
While that 1.75 percentage point increase may not sound like much, state officials say it represents a significant improvement when spread across an enrollment of 48,000 students.
And the trend was even more dramatic at city high schools, where increases -- some of them more than 10 percent -- were recorded at all 17 schools.
At the same time, individual high schools barred dozens of students from taking exams because they missed more than 15 percent of the instructional year -- or 28 days of class. District officials said that was an inevitable consequence of an 85 percent attendance requirement instituted this year to boost attendance, accountability and achievement.
"You can't learn if you aren't in school," said School Board President Paul G. Buchanan. "Students and parents have to know that we're serious about this, and that there are consequences. Everyone's first responsibility is to get students to school."
Buffalo's attendance rate -- long a serious concern -- now approaches the statewide average of 92.9 percent recorded in 1998-99, the last year for which state figures are available.
"The policy has been tremendous," said Maxine E. Hare, district attendance supervisor. "I think the 85 percent requirement worked well for us, and I'd like to see it increase as time goes on."
Principals predict that attendance will continue to rise as students realize that the district means business, and that students who regularly skip class will be on the sidelines at exam time.
"I think some of the kids were pushing it to see if they really were going to be excluded (from exams)," said Thomas P. Kopera, the principal of Burgard Vocational High School. "Those non-believers are now going to be believers."
The new policy is both effective and necessary, said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
"Being at school and being on time is one of the basic skills we're responsible for teaching children," he said. "If you raise expectations, students will meet them."
Local suburban districts generally do not have attendance requirements, but their attendance rates tend to be much higher than those of Buffalo or other large cities.
Buffalo's districtwide numbers have not yet been compiled. However, figures from individual schools show the new policy's impact, and Grover Cleveland was not the only high school affected.
At Burgard, about 20 of 450 students were excluded from all their exams, and another 20 from some finals but not others. And as many as 30 South Park High School students missed individual exams because of the new policy.
Those students will have the opportunity to make up the courses in summer school or next year. Some seniors missed the chance to graduate this week because they weren't in class often enough.
Principals stressed that sick days were not counted against students who made up their work through home instruction or before and after school. Also, students were not penalized when they missed school because of authorized educational trips or for other legitimate reasons.
Hearings and appeals were available to students who chose to contest their exclusion from exams.
"We made a lot of announcements, pronouncements, class meetings -- we told them point blank what was going to happen," said Raymond Perreault, principal of South Park.
"We gave the kids every opportunity to comply and actually hounded them about it," said Benjamin L. Randle Jr., the principal at Grover Cleveland. "If they can't make it here, they're not going to make it anywhere."
The policy gives students failing grades for each marking period during which they attend school less than 85 percent of the time. The policy was suspended for the first marking period because the teachers strike in September caused daily uncertainty about whether schools would be open.
Other than that, the policy was consistently enforced, said Superintendent Marion Canedo.
"We're holding firm on the process," she said. "The bottom line is that we need to get kids in school and hold them accountable for being there."
For the marking period that ended May 25, all 17 high schools had higher attendance rates than they did during the corresponding period last year.
"The improvement has really been outstanding, and right across the board," said Catherine F. Battaglia, principal at City Honors School, where attendance was up 7 percentage points.
Attendance at Burgard increased 15 percentage points, to 88 percent from 73 percent. There were also gains of 9 percentage points at both South Park and Buffalo Alternative high schools, and 8 percentage points at Emerson Vocational High School. Principals said those numbers closely reflect the results of earlier marking periods.
More-modest increases were posted at most city elementary schools.