THE COST OF STUDENT ABSENCES

AUTHOR: MONIQU

THE COST OF STUDENT ABSENCES

FACT BOX:

How is Average Daily Attendance calculated?

The Mississippi Department of Education uses Average Daily Attendance figures to determine how much state money school districts receive.

Normally, ADA is calculated by taking the daily attendance of students during the first and second full months of school.

But districts can also opt to submit attendance reports for the entire school year if that formula will land them more money.

This option is designed to help school districts that might have abnormally low attendance during the first weeks of school.

The state money schools receive is Minimum Program money, which primarily goes to pay for teachers. Other support services, like secretaries and administrators, are also paid for with some of the money.

The numbers from last year’s ADA were used to determine this year’s funding.

Vital statistics

The cost of student absences

Absent students cost NE Mississippi thousands in state funds

By Monique Harrison

Daily Journal

Chronically absent students often pay the price academically, posting weak scores on achievement tests and class assignments.

But absenteeism also has a more tangible price tag, costing Northeast Mississippi school districts thousands of dollars in state Minimum Program funds.

“You rely on state money to pay for your teachers,” said Baldwyn Separate School District Superintendent C.L. Shelton. “When that money doesn’t come through, it comes from local sources or, in most cases, you just do without it if you can. It’s not a good situation to be in.”

The Mississippi Department of Education uses Average Daily Attendance figures to determine how much state money each school district receives.

ADA is normally calculated by submitting the daily attendance of students during the first and second full months of school.

However, districts can opt to submit their ADA for the entire nine months if that formula will land them more state money.

The nine-month plan is designed to help districts where illnesses or other problems cause a high absentee rate early in the year.

“There are times when a certain district might have an unusually high absentee rate,” said Jim Hemphill, head of the Mississippi Department of Education’s external relations. “For schools like that, the nine-month system would work better. The formula that gives districts the most money is the one we go with.”

How ADA works

Districts submit their ADA numbers to the state and then auditors visit schools. Most districts receive about two auditor visits each year, but districts where auditor counts and district counts vary sharply receive more visits.

“The auditor may make more visits if they see a discrepancy in the numbers,” Hemphill said. “But there’s an understanding that a certain variance is to be expected. On certain days, more students are going to be out of school than others.”

School districts lose approximately $1,333 in Minimum Program funding for each student that is not counted in the Average Daily Attendance.

“You certainly don’t take school attendance lightly,” said Lee County Schools Superintendent Lynn Lindsey. “You want students to be in school so they are learning and you want them in school because it helps with ADA. When they are not in school it costs us. And most districts can’t afford too many high costs.”

Minimum Program money can be used to cover a variety of costs. Most of the money is used to pay the salaries of teachers, but other money is used to pay for administration, secretaries and other support services.

Making up lost dollars

When Minimum Program money falls short, districts are typically forced to dip into their local revenues. And in some cases, that means raising ad valorem taxes. Other times, districts simply eliminate programs or increase the student-teacher ratio in classes to reduce operational costs. In other cases, districts apply for grants that can be used to make up the differences.

Statewide, the ADA was 96.55 percent of total enrollment, according to numbers included in the Mississippi Report Card, a statistics-packed document published by the state. All statistics are for the school year 1994-95. No more recent numbers are available.

Northeast Mississippi districts that fell below the state average during the 1994-95 school year include: Corinth School District, Benton County Schools, Clay County Schools, West Point School District, Lee County Schools, Marshall County Schools, Holly Springs Separate School District, Aberdeen School District and Pontotoc City Schools.

Two Northeast Mississippi districts – Okolona and Amory – had exceptionally high ADA percentages, with Okolona at 99.10 percent and Amory at 99.08 percent.

Newly named Okolona Superintendent Gerald Hegan said he was pleased with those numbers, but didn’t necessarily expect the numbers to be that high every year.

“That number is exceptionally high,” Hegan said. “We want to set high standards but in reality, most districts think they are doing very well if they can get 97 percent. If we reach that this year, I will be very happy.”

In Amory, Superintendent Orman Bridges said an incentive program contributed to their strong attendance showing, along with what he sees as an environment that makes students eager to attend school.

Tactics to improve attendance

Districts typically use a number of tactics designed to increase student attendance.

A number of districts like Amory and Okolona allow junior high and high school students with perfect attendance to be exempt from exams, provided they maintain a “C” average.

Some districts use a sliding scale, which allows students with higher averages to miss one or two days and still be eligible for exemption.

Exemption policies are somewhat controversial, however. Some districts nixed their policy because of concern that college-bound students needed to have exam-taking experience.

Tupelo High School, for example, did away with exemptions during the 1993-94 school year and revived the policy during the 1995-96 school year.

At the elementary level and middle school level, where exams normally aren’t given, some schools sponsor attendance competitions.

The grade level with the highest percentage in attendance receives a party or is allowed to take an extra field trip.

What the law says

Districts also push attendance by reminding students of state attendance laws.

The Mississippi Compulsory School Attendance Law says any child between the ages of six and 16 is required to attend school or to be enrolled in a home-school program.

The law allows students to miss school because of illness, the death of an immediate family member, a medical or dental appointment, a court appearance or to observe a religious holiday.

Students are also permitted to miss school for valid educational opportunities, like family vacations. These absences must be preapproved.

Parents or guardians of children who don’t attend school may be charged with contributing to the neglect of a minor.

Attendance policies vary from district to district. However, most Northeast Mississippi school districts don’t allow students to miss more than two weeks of school per semester. Exceptions are often made for students with serious illnesses.