City’s truancy policy heading back to the drawing board

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BOSC Vice Chairman Arthur Beaudry on Nov. 26, 2018

MANCHESTER, NH – What is the best path for addressing attendance issues in Manchester’s schools? On Monday, the Manchester Board of School Committee discussed the topic, providing an expectation that the matter will return to the board’s attention in upcoming meetings as well.

Manchester School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas initiated the discussion during his updates to the board, noting an absentee policy that began several years ago to provide proper education for students who missed months of school while visiting family overseas.

Currently, students will not receive a grade if they are absent more than five times per grading period, excluding limited exceptions. Parents and students over 18 can also be subject to fines under state law for excessive absenteeism as well. Vargas told the board since the five-absence policy was approved by the BOSC several years ago, accurate data has become impossible to obtain, as students and parents obscure reasoning behind absences to avoid retribution.

However, Vargas also said the district’s ability to enforce the policy is almost non-existent, with only one truant officer for the district’s 13,000 students.

“It’s very easy to pass a policy, but can you execute that policy?,” he asked. “Our capacity is very limited.”

Members of the board agreed that the city must work within state truancy laws, but also agreed that district’s punitive approach is counterproductive.

Initial thoughts included more flexibility for students in families that have vacation schedules not lining up with the district’s and even abandoning the concept of attendance altogether in favor of competency-based approaches.

Vargas told the board if something is not done to help reform and enforce truancy policies, it could have serious consequences for the future of the district given its increasing cultural diversity.

“This city is incredible, but I am afraid,” he said. “I’m afraid of what could be 10 years from now.”

The issue was sent to committee, with a request for Vargas to present possible alternatives for the policy after obtaining feedback from community members.

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