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Charter School in Flap Over Attendance

Education: Palisades High's absence policy is opposed by parents, officials. Forty teachers face discipline unless they reverse grades.

March 12, 2002|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teachers at Pacific Palisades Charter High School last fall thought they were on solid ground when they enforced a tough attendance policy that gave failing grades to students who had too many unexcused absences.

Now 40 teachers themselves face possible disciplinary action this week if they ignore orders from their principal and Los Angeles Unified School District officials to pass as many as 200 students who flunked classes in February under the attendance policy. District officials say that the attendance policy was never properly vetted and that it is probably illegal.

Those teachers now complain that school administrators caved in to angry parents and let absentee students off the hook.

The row shows the difficult balance many schools are trying to achieve between parental involvement and meddling as they implement tough educational standards.

The standoff also highlights the sometimes testy relationship between L.A. Unified and its semi-independent charter schools. Pali High is a 2,500-student charter school including a math and science magnet that draws students from all over the city. It remains part of the district, but some teachers say the school may apply this year to become fully independent under a state program.

The attendance policy flap will be aired today at a school governance council meeting.

Last week 70 teachers signed a letter urging Pali's principal to defend the attendance rules, which flunk students who have more than six unexcused absences in a semester. The policy allows parents to appeal after the fact with doctors' notes and other legitimate excuses.

The teachers say that the policy is a matter of principle and that it's important to teach students the value of responsibility. All the tests and education reforms in the world, they add, won't make a bit of difference if students don't show up.

Brandon Ford failed his cooking class because of absences and tardies but received an A after the teacher in that class responded to the principal's directive. Ford still has a failing grade in English, which he missed seven times during the fall semester.

"He's allergic to many different things," said Ford's mother, Jacqueline Watson, who is appealing the English grade. "He has migraines. I even brought in a letter from the doctor's office" to cover several missed classes.

"Why should he get a failing grade if he made up all the work?" she asked.

Mary Redclay, a Pali English teacher and faculty senate chairwoman, vows the faculty will go to court before letting truant students pass. "We'll hire a lawyer, even if we have to do bake sales," she said.

Ruth Mills, a Spanish teacher who has a daughter attending Pali, said changing the grades "would send a message that we are going to graduate you and send you out into the world without teaching you to be accountable for yourself."

But the local cluster administrator, Carol Dodd, said that the attendance policy was never an approved part of Pali's charter. As a charter school within the district, Pali can apply to waive certain requirements but has much less autonomy than charter schools that have seceded.

"There is no record on file of an attendance policy from the school," said Dodd, "so Palisades must abide by district guidelines and district policy." Under district policy, students who hand in their work and make up tests should pass regardless of attendance. Dodd directed Pali Principal Linda Hosford to discipline teachers who refuse to change grades, but she declined to say what those disciplinary actions might entail.

Hosford was also reluctant to detail those measures but said they could include submitting negative evaluations into teachers' personnel files. Hosford originally defended the attendance policy, which the school began implementing in 1994 and still posts on its Web site. She credited the rule with increasing the school's attendance rate from around 85% to its current level of 92%.

But a few days ago, Hosford was told that there was no written policy for Pali on file at district headquarters and that she had to enforce the district one instead.

Pali Spanish teacher Maggie Nance accused the district of deep-sixing the policy to appease upset parents. She and other teachers blamed Margaret Evans, the assistant principal in charge of attendance, for being too soft on negligent students and encouraging parents to complain to the district about the attendance policy.

Evans said she enforced Pali's attendance policy until she learned that the district hadn't approved it. But Evans said some teachers seem overeager to fail students. One student, Evans said, missed more than six days because she had traveled to Argentina and got stuck there during civil unrest. That case is being appealed.

Other students have been excused because of deaths in the family or health problems, Evans said.

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