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Unified School District 475 had an extended discussion about the way district schools deal with chronic absenteeism and discipline problems and the need for a district-wide student code of conduct.

A discipline task force has been formed to help create this new policy, which is expected to be rolled out next school year.

Director of Student Services for USD 475 Deb Gustafson said the schools are working on a universal code of conduct that can be shared across buildings in order to better address student behavior and absenteeism in USD 475.

The new system would use three tiers to rank students based on those two factors, in the hopes of making it easier for educators to better address students’ issues and needs.

Children in the third tier — those who are in greatest need and at greatest risk — receive a certain amount of extra attention.

According to Gustafson, the district is currently trying to get a handle on students in the second tier — which she described as a “pretty hefty” population — to better address their needs.

Graduation rates, she said, are directly tied in with regular attendance.

She broke down absenteeism issues across the schools and discussed what the term “chronic absenteeism” meant for the district.

There is no intention to eliminate the concept of excused absences or to blur the line between allowed absences and truancy. However Gustafson said an excused absence — even one for a school sport or extracurricular activity — is still missed class time for students.

According to Gustafson, the primary difference between an excused absence and an unexcused ones that a parent or guardian called the former in and let the school know the student would be out of class.

“I will tell you most of our chronic absenteeism are excused absences,” she said. “They are excused absences for people that are just chronically gone.”

While she stressed that not all parents pulled their students out of class without cause, she said that sometimes families did make excuses to take their children out of school for a variety of reasons.

“And if (parents) excuse it, we kind of have to excuse it,” Gustafson said. “But what we find is if they can just say (kids are) sick, then we have to excuse it. We don’t have any proof.”

This can cause students to miss valuable class time, she said. When talking about chronic absenteeism, Gustafson said, even excused absences need to be taken into account.

The district hopes to see chronic absenteeism go down to about 9 percent, if not lower, across the district. At the end of the year, across the entire district, this statistic sat at about 12.6 percent. At this time, the number is on target with the district’s goal at 8.6 percent.

“It is pretty comparable across the state as I looked at other schools attendance data, but it certainly isn’t what we would want for our students in terms of their attendance,” Gustafson said.

Improvements are possible, according to Gustafson, and have been made in the recent past. At the end of last school year, Westwood Elementary School was sitting at 14 percent and this year, at the end of the fall semester, the school is down to 2.7 percent, she said. Washington Elementary School has a similar story. At one point, the school was at 20 percent chronic absenteeism and is currently in the range of 5.4 percent, at the end of last semester.

“So I see those as a couple of real success stories,” Gustafson said.

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