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Enough about the evals -- what about the attendance problem?

There's a whole lot of talk about teacher evaluations and how or if students with poor attendance should count toward a teacher's evaluation.

That would all be a moot point if Buffalo didn't have such a big attendance problem.

But right now, the key players -- including Amber Dixon, Phil Rumore and Sam Radford -- are focused on the evaluations, not attendance.

Yes, the district has a pilot program in place at several schools to boost attendance. Yes, attendance is inching up in a number of schools. And yes, it is still so bad overall that many teachers feel it is unfair to count all students toward a teacher's evaluation.

I was talking recently to an administrator in the district who wondered why the School Board -- in all these months that the attendance issue has been such a sticking point -- has not decided to take a look at revising its attendance policy to respond to the problems and concerns in the district.

A few months ago, when the attendance issue exploded in Buffalo, I reported that countless teachers said student attendance got markedly worse in 2005, when the board eliminated the portion of the policy that said students could not take the final exam if they missed more than 28 days. ("Back when Buffalo had a minimum attendance requirement for students")

Teachers and administrators at the time pointed to the attendance policy change -- along with a change in grading policy that required teachers to give students no grade lower than a 50 -- for a marked drop in attendance.

We ran a story in June 2006 that said, in part:

For the attendance period that ended March 31, 12 of 13 city high schools had lower attendance rates than they did during the corresponding period last school year.  

In many cases, the drop was severe. Riverside's rate fell from 78.5 to 67 percent; Seneca's from 82.2 to 74.5 percent; East's from 81.1 to 77.3 percent; and Lafayette's from 83.8 to 78.6 percent. School officials say attendance rates of less than 90 percent are unacceptable.

Back in March, Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes told me there was no way the district would ever return to such a policy, saying it was unfair and blamed the parents for attendance problems.

Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon, though, said it was time to take another look at the policy. "I did direct our principals to start looking at that and make a recommendation," she said. 

I haven't heard a word about it since then from Dixon.

And at no point have I heard any discussion about this at the board table, from the people who were elected to set policy for the district.


On a related note, this morning, I had a conversation with Frank Mesiah, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Mesiah, remember, just sent a letter to the state education commissioner, saying it's unfair for the state to count all students toward a teacher's evalution.

What he was most troubled by was the fact that what he referred to as the three parties -- the district administration, the teachers union and the parents -- are not sitting down to figure out what's at the root of the attendance problem and how to fix it.

"If people don't sit down and start talking about it, there's no way to come to a resolution," Mesiah said. "Why are we not getting kids to school?"

The three groups need to sit down in a non-threatening way, he said, with no media there, so that there's a real conversation going on, not grandstanding.

Each group bears some responsibility in addressing the larger issues, Mesiah said.

"You have to examine why the children are not getting into that school. What is it parents are not doing to see to it their children are getting to school?" he said. "And then once they get to school, why aren't teachers able to teach them? Is it because of teacher absenteeism? Is it because teachers are not trained to teach in an urban environment? And what is it the Board of Education can do? Is it necessary to rehire that group of truant officers to get kids in school?"

He says it's time for someone in the community with enough credibility to call the three groups together and have them start working on addressing the underlying issues. (Mesiah, by the way, wasn't volunteering himself for the job, nor was he suggesting anybody in particular.)

"Even in a war where you have two sides, each side says, you give a little and I'll give a little," he said. "But when both sides are like kamikazes, there's no end to it. It's just the destruction of both of us."

- Mary Pasciak

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