Richmond School Board sign

One in three Richmond Public Schools seniors would have their grade point average dip if administrators enforced a penalty related to absenteeism that was established in 2012.

The consequences of punishing students for missing too many classes would put the graduation status for some at risk, officials acknowledged at a School Board meeting Monday. The board ultimately suspended implementation of the policy after a presentation from administration officials who said a lack of technology, time and money would preclude them from enforcing the rule this year.

The 2012 policy mandates that students with more than six unexcused absences per nine weeks and 10 per semester in a particular class not get credit for that class — regardless of grade. If the division were to implement the policy this school year, GPAs would fall for more than 1,300 students, including more than 400 seniors. It was not immediately clear why the penalty had gone unenforced.

The revelation yielded mixed responses from School Board members, ranging from dismay over student truancy to concerns that the measure was too punitive.

“These are students who have the grades,” said Linda Owen of the 9th District. “What we’re saying is because they have the six unexcused absences, they don’t get the credit. These are not kids that did not show up at all.

“I just don’t see how we can legitimately say to the kids who have the grades to earn the credit that because you have — now — unexcused absences, we’re going to take the credit away.”

The School Board voted 6-2 to suspend the policy for now, meaning the 413 seniors with an excessive number of unexcused absences will not have their GPAs lowered. The division has 1,233 seniors, according to state data.

Jonathan Young of the 4th District and Felicia Cosby of the 6th District voted against suspending the policy.

“Richmond Public Schools has systemic accountability problems beginning with a complete disregard for the basics like showing up for class,” Young said Tuesday. “The disgrace relevant to our attendance deficiencies is only the tip of an iceberg that includes chronic problems including students that wander the halls all day disrupting classes, initiating fights and creating hardships for all of the students trying to do the right thing.”

System officials called for a review of the policy, for an updated policy by the start of next school year and for internal RPS controls “to ensure that the revised policy is implemented with complete fidelity.”

The policy, which some School Board members called inadequate for its lack of understanding of out-of-school time, is not listed in the RPS student handbook.

“Oftentimes there are situations in our homes that we are not aware of,” said School Board member Cheryl Burke of the 7th District. “Of all the procedures that we could use to hold children accountable for coming to school, to take away their grades, I don’t get it.”

She added: “I hope we can revisit this policy. I think it’s punitive and it’s not in the business of helping students, especially thinking of the population in which we serve. Some of our children work. Some of our children are taking care of their siblings. Some of our children are taking care of their parents. Some of our children have issues beyond the schools piece. To take away somebody’s grades, that’s like taking away their income. That’s terrible.”

Superintendent Jason Kamras agreed, adding that the system should be asking more of its students.

“I find this unconscionable on many levels,” he said. “The thing that is staying with me the most is the following: If you are able to pass one of our courses in high school having missed, 20, 25, 30 days, then what we are teaching them is not worthy of their time. To me, this is ultimately about what do we believe our children are actually capable of?”

It’s unclear why the policy was adopted in 2012 and who was responsible for seeing it through.

“Many of us weren’t here to be able to speak to the process in 2012,” said Michelle Boyd, the division’s assistant superintendent of exceptional education and student services, who oversees attendance.

Dawn Page, the 8th District representative and current chairwoman of the School Board, also served as chairwoman in 2012, but left the board the next year.

After Monday night’s meeting, Page said she did not recall why the 2012 board approved the policy, adding that the board and administration are investigating what happened.

“It’s really disconcerting to think that the policymakers of the school district put a policy in place that’s just completely ignored,” said 2nd District School Board member Scott Barlow.

The situation is similar in the District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington, where one-third of the school system’s graduates shouldn’t have graduated last year because of chronic truancy and other problems.

In Washington, attendance policies were rarely followed, according to an independent report released in January, and credit recovery programs were misused. The issue came to light after an NPR investigation, which prompted a divisionwide review.

With the division’s newfound compliance, less than half — 42 percent — of the District’s seniors are on track to graduate this year.

Kamras, Richmond’s relatively new schools chief, worked in the District of Columbia Public Schools administration last year. He became aware of the RPS issues while reviewing policies during his transition to RPS, a division spokeswoman said.

Both the division’s failure to comply with School Board policy in weighing advanced classes, which RPS says has been happening for four years, and the attendance policy neglect happened in years of transition, something 3rd District School Board member Kenya Gibson called “the elephant in the room.”

“It’s critical that as we are in another period of transition that we do what we can to make sure that whatever was started we can continue however that needs to happen,” Gibson said.

Budget update

The rising cost of health care could affect the Richmond Public Schools budget.

Health care costs for RPS are expected to rise more than previously estimated, so the division plans to allocate an additional $600,000 to cover new health care expenses. To offset the rise in new costs — a jump from $1.2 million in the original budget to $1.8 million now — Kamras proposes cutting 40 percent of the board’s allocation for athletic equipment, leaving $300,000; cutting $100,000 for the trauma-informed care pilot, leaving $50,000; cutting the entirety of the board’s restorative justice pilot; cutting the living room chat pilot; and cutting the board’s planned perfect-attendance award for bus drivers.

“I’m not conceding anything on the budget front,” Kamras said, saying he still plans to advocate for more money from the city. “I’m merely offering this as a worst-case scenario.”

The City Council continues to weigh a budget that would give RPS $12.4 million in one-time money, which School Board members and education advocates say puts future RPS budgets at risk because of the nonexistence of recurring revenue.

“We will be in the hole next year,” said Cosby, the 6th District representative.

The School Board has not decided which parts of its $11 million additional funding request would be cut if it does not receive an increase to its operating budget.

Strategic plan

Kamras plans to break the RPS strategic planning process into four stages: visioning, drafting, finalizing and communicating. The visioning stage, which runs through June 18, is meant to start a “citywide visioning about the future of RPS.” According to his proposal, there will be more than 150 in-person sessions and a website where people can comment.

The in-person sessions, of which the dates have not been announced, will include one at each RPS school for students; one at each RPS school for staff; one at each RPS school for families; two at the RPS central office; one for each School Board district; two for the School Board; one for each of Kamras’ advisory groups (student, family, teacher, principal); and one for each of the nonprofit, faith, civil rights, business and higher education communities.

The second stage — drafting — runs from June 18 through July 13 and will conclude with the presentation of the draft strategic plan at the School Board’s July 13 meeting.

The finalizing of the plan is slated for July 13 through Aug. 6. The plan will officially launch at the School Board’s Aug. 20 meeting, according to Kamras’ proposal.

School Lunch Hero Day

The School Board voted unanimously to deem Friday “School Lunch Hero Day.” Not all heroes wear capes.

The board meets again next week.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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