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Schoolwork in the Balance

September 08, 2002|ELIZABETH TRIANA

In a few weeks I'll be looking out at the faces of high school parents on Back-to-School Night. I'll wonder which of them will be taking their child out of school for a family vacation, and which will be calling me later in the year to ask why their child is doing poorly.

I'll wonder how many opportunities for learning will be lost, and which students will never recover from that vacation. Last year, 24 of my 165 English students were absent from school for a week or more for personal reasons. Even worse, scores of additional students were absent for one, two or three days at a time for everything from snowboarding and river rafting to sleeping late after the previous night's concert or staying home to finish the science project due that day.

In reality, "family vacation" or "personal reasons" are euphemisms for "parent-sponsored truancies." A July 14 Times editorial focused on the loss of school funding that these truancies cause, but what about the impact beyond funding?

Parent-sponsored truancies can thrust both parent and student into an emotional struggle to cope with the stress of making up lost work. For the average freshman with five academic classes, a week away means 25 hours of classroom instruction lost.

Merely arranging the time to see five teachers for the work is complicated enough for today's busy students. Imagine the pressure on a student who has to make up 25 hours of biology, Shakespeare, European history, algebra and French--while keeping current with new assignments.

What priority will makeup work be given when weighed against sports and social activities? What priority will homework be given during the time out of school?

The truth is even some dedicated students will set that work aside in favor of other activities, and then it will be too late to recover. Moreover, it is a myth that independent study contracts can adequately replace the classroom experience of peer discussion, an unplanned "teachable moment" or a revelation that results in a personal connection to the material.

Well-intentioned parents do not always anticipate or consider the consequences of parent-sponsored truancies. Nor do they fully appreciate the stress it puts on a student to complete work early or make it up later. It's particularly difficult for inexperienced freshmen or students who are already struggling academically.

It's heartbreaking to see students at the end of a semester struggling to get back to the C, B or A they had before the absence. Some parents unwisely listen to students who say, "We don't do anything the week before Christmas" or "The teacher said I could make it up."

Students always seem to forget the teacher's stern warning about missing that critical aspect of the unit.

When I speak to parents about this issue, reactions vary. One parent felt his son should have been more diligent about doing his work while they were in Hawaii. Another regretted a decision to travel, saying, "If I had known she would be failing, we never would have planned this trip six months ago." A number of parents were disappointed to learn that the test, essay or project wasn't completed as their student promised.

Also, it's not uncommon for students to become ill, suffer a sports injury or have a family emergency, such as the death of a grandparent. When that happens during the same semester as a vacation, it means more time off from school. Few parents anticipate these and other emergencies that compound the loss of classroom time.

Students also can add to the problem of parent-sponsored truancies. Some inform me ahead of time and ask for work to compensate for their absence; others just show up following the absence to ask, "Did I miss anything?"

Parent-sponsored truancies send subtle messages to students. Endorsing truancy implies that school is not a priority. Despite a parent's sincere attempt to justify the absence as an educational, once-in-a-lifetime or family-bonding experience, students see the contradictory behavior of a parent who professes the importance of school but then excuses truancy.

Without calculating the scores of shorter absences, let's look only at the numbers for my vacationing students. Last year, I had 24 weeklong truancies, the equivalent of 120 lost days or 600 hours of lost learning.

Is it worth it? I can answer that question because I have experience with this issue both as parent and teacher. Many of us have taken our children out of school now and then, especially in elementary school. I took my son out for two days of his freshman year for an "educational" trip to the United Nations.

I wasn't teaching then, and I thought we had it covered. It was a disaster that later prompted him to exclaim, "Never take me out of school again! It's going to take me a week to make up for two days."

And the irony? Today, he barely remembers the United Nations.

Trust me, it's not worth it.


Elizabeth Triana is a high school teacher in the Capistrano Unified School District.

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