DRAPER — Julie Burnett cringed two years ago when a family trip clashed with her children's school schedule. Her daughter and son were in 3rd and 5th grade, and the trip would only take them away for four days, but still, it pained her.
She knew her kids would have to play catch up with their assignments and the break would make her young daughter nervous about going back to class, but more than that, it was a matter of principle.
"I never made it as a kid to 100 percent attendance," says Burnett. "I know that sounds nerdy, but I always wanted that. And I want it for my kids. I don't know that my kids care as much as I do, but oh well."
She ultimately relented to the vacation "for the sake of being a family."
How important is attendance to school performance? Some states are hoping to do a better job answering that question, as mounting research shows that even skipping school in kindergarten can stunt learning and lead to later behavioral problems. But implementing a clearer approach to tackling truancy, as Louisiana did last year, and cracking down on "excused absences," as California did last month, isn't likely to happen any time soon in Utah, where educators agree tracking truancy is important, but missing school still means something different in all 40 districts in the state.
According to a National Center for Children in Poverty report on chronic absence, the negative impact that missing class during the first years of school — for whatever reason — can have on students can be just as indicative of underlying problems as truancy in later years. The center also says missing 10 percent or more of school can lead to lower academic performance in subsequent grades, but there is a resistance in Utah to streamlining standards of attendance.
Setting clear, state-wide guidelines might simplify tracking the problem and allow educators to more easily see areas that need improvement, but legislators are unlikely to impinge on parents' rights by setting such limits, says Carol Lear, law and legislation director for the State Office of Education.
"You've got a state philosophy that really is about parents' rights," Lear says. "You've got a Legislature that will be very deferential to parents who say, 'I don't think first grade is very important, so two days out of five is good enough.' You have to find the political will for (changing attendance laws) and that's probably not going to happen in Utah."
Louisiana has cracked down hard on parents who fail to bring their children to school. This year, lawmakers in the state decreed that principals should begin intervening with parents "on or before" their child's third unexcused absence. Last year, the state enacted a law that says that parents can be fined up to $250 dollars or imprisoned for 30 days — or both — and can be required to complete 40 hours of community service if their child, as a minor, has more than five unexcused absences or incidences of being tardy over the course of the school year.
California's newly adopted law last month is not as harsh, but it does expand accounting of school attendance to include excused — when a parent gives permission — and unexcused absences. The state now defines students who miss more than 10 percent of the school year, for whatever reason, as chronically absent and tracks that number.
Utah's attendance policy is designed to be loosely interpreted and enforced by individual districts, and often, within each district, each school may interpret what constitutes an excused absence and determine how many are acceptable. The State Office of Education keeps track of truancies reported by the schools, but comprehensively, the data means little because it is so varied.
"If we're supposed to be tracking these kids and testing them on what they've learned, and there's a loose standard for if they're in school or not, then it isn't really fair to grade teachers and grade schools where there isn't a strong mechanism for getting the kids there to teach them," Lear says.
There's also an accounting loophole that drops students from schools' attendance rolls after 10 consecutive absences. That means the school is no longer receiving funding for that student, and when that happens, Lear fears some students are lost for good.
Still, some school districts like Provo, Canyons and Granite have programs to theoretically intervene before it reaches that point. In the Canyons School District, parents are allowed to let their children miss 10 days in the school year for vacation, but initial letters of warning are sent to parents when students have three-to-five unexcused absences.
In Granite School District, a letter is sent after five unexcused absences. At 10, the student is deemed a habitual truant, and they must meet with the district. Then, if the student doesn't change his ways, they're referred to juvenile court.
"Bottom line, what we say is we just need you in school," says Curt Hansen, who oversees truancy in Granite District. "Legitimate absence is one thing, and there are illnesses, but truancy is really damaging and doesn't have a good outcome for the kid."
In Provo School District, old-fashioned truancy officers still patrol for missing students and work to get them back after they've been absent without an excuse for more than five days. Camme Cox is one of those officers. She mainly works with middle and high school students, but she's seen five- and six-year-olds pulled into the process, too.
In her district, parents are allowed to request 20 absences for their student for the year for whatever reason — illness, vacation, family matters — but students who don't have a parent's permission to skip school will get a letter after five absences.
If they're absent another five-to-eight days, students have to attend truancy school at night with their parents for a fee. If that doesn't solve the problem, they are summoned to attend a non-binding court held at the district offices. If that doesn't work, they're referred to juvenile court. In this system, most attendance issues are resolved by the time the second letter arrives, says Greg Hudnall, director of student services for Provo School District.
"Truancy is the gateway," Hudnall says. "When a student is truant, the research shows it leads you down a path of drugs and alcohol and promiscuity and all kinds of things we want to prevent in our community."
Still, it's tough to see younger students fall into truancy, Cox says. She knows that resolving truancy in elementary school is much better in the long run, but watching a kindergartener stand and face the district's judge in truancy court — and it has happened — is heart-breaking.
"When you see a tiny little person standing up to the podium with their parent to talk to our judge, it's a little mind-boggling and of course it's hard," Cox says. "Because what we realize is, most little children love to go to school, with the exception of some. Most of the time, when we have tiny children with a truant problem, it's a parent problem."