Sunday, February 13, 2011

Does Learning only Take Place in the Classroom? Targeting Truant Parents Gone too Far?


The Nebraska Legislature enacted a new statute for this school year, 79-201, to deal with the issue of truancy. This statute requires schools to notify the parents if their child has missed 5 days of school, no matter the reason. After 20 absences the school is required to report the parent to the county attorney.

I previously taught in a high poverty school. There was a homeless shelter in our attendance area so I dealt with students who would miss a lot of school or have a student who would only be in my class for a few weeks before moving on to a different school or district. I saw first hand the problems that can occur when students miss a lot of school. I applaud the state for taking some action to make parents more accountable for their child’s education. I really believe that a parent’s involvement plays a significant role in the success of a student.

Here’s the thing though, is sending a letter after 5 absences really appropriate? Will this really target just the parents that it is meant to target or is also targeting very well-meaning parents who place a value on their child’s education? What about those kids with chronic health issues? My oldest son missed a lot of school in first grade due to recurrent strep throat that resulted in him needing his tonsils out. Should I have just sent him to school?

On the parent side of the puzzle I am very involved in my children’s educations. I volunteer at the school, I check backpacks everyday, I respond to all correspondence promptly, I attend all conferences and meetings at the school, I email the teachers regularly to clarify things or to pass information on to them, I read with my children daily, I provide my children with experiences to enhance their education, I put together a summer curriculum for my children to follow to minimize the summer loss of information. I could go on and on. I really don’t feel that I am the parent that the state of Nebraska was trying to target when they enacted this statute. Yet I received two of these letters yesterday, one for each of my sons. One son has missed 6 days and one has missed 5 for this school year.  We had the flu run through our house in November and 2-3 days were missed because of this. The other 3 days were missed because we were on a family vacation to Florida last week. I admit it; I took my kids out of school to go to Florida to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. We had planned to only miss 2 days but due to a snowstorm we were unable to get back as planned so the kids missed 3 days. Why did we go during the school year and not summer? A couple reasons, first it is much cheaper, much cooler, and much less crowded in January so I can get a better value for my money. Also our school district has very little breaks during the school year that span more than 1 day other than the Christmas holiday. We start later and get out earlier in the summer but we pay for that with very little vacation time in between.

Do I feel guilty for taking my kids out of school? No. I communicated with the teachers before we left and after we returned, none of them had a problem with it. I took it upon myself to know what the kids were studying so I could point things out during the trip that would correspond with what they were learning. We have read the Harry Potter books together.  We did a lot of compare and contrast and making what we’ve read become real at the Wizarding World. Was it a fun trip? Absolutely! Was it educational? I believe it was. My kindergartener did a lot of sounding out signs, menus, etc to use his new reading skills in context of life. My older kids put their academic learning to practice in the real world. Is there anything wrong with combining academic learning with real world fun? Isn’t that what we used to do with field trips? Which is often a thing of the past with budget cuts!

Another reason I don’t feel guilty is because I know how much educational time can be wasted in school. At my kid’s school the day before holiday break consisted of watching a Shrek movie in the gym, eating lunch, watching the teachers play in a volleyball tournament, and ended with the classroom Christmas party. How much academic learning took place that day?  How about the assemblies for Mr. XXX dressing up in a dress because the school collected a certain number of box tops, or the special jump roper who came to demonstrate his skills?

The thing is I don’t have a problem with these activities either. They may not have much academic value but they do have social value in bringing the school together as a community. I have no problem with that.  The only thing my school has done that I object to is to take out learning time to conduct an assembly to kick off the PTO fundraisers. To get the kids excited about all the prizes they could possibly win. Now that is something that really bothers me and I would prefer that schools stop using our kids as salespeople for high priced, junky products that the school receives very little money from!

But really it all comes down to does education only take place in the confines of a classroom? Is there no value to branching out to the world and adding real life experiences to that education even if they are fun? Not only the educational opportunities that are given on a family trip but what about the value of that time spent together as a family? I have taken my kids out of school in the past for Disney World vacations and so many of the best family time we have had is during these trips. The kids often bring up things they learned on these trips and connect them to things they learned in the classroom. I will be taking them out of school for three more days in April to go to the Space Shuttle Endeavour launch. In my opinion this again will be highly educational and far surpasses anything that could be taught in the classroom!

If that makes me a bad parent so be it, I really don’t believe that I am, or should be placed, into the same category as parents who have multiple absences due to laziness but this is what the state of Nebraska is now doing with Statute 79-201. I do agree that something needs to be done about those parents that do not value education and aren’t making it a priority in their child’s life. I do feel there must be a better way to distinguish those parents from the multiple well-meaning parents who are dealing with a child’s health issue or is trying to expand their education by giving them real world experiences.