Facing poor school attendance, Alaska educators turn to fines, prizes

Parents in the Interior community of Fairbanks may face a fine if their child misses too many days of school, should an ordinance before the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly pass this summer. The ordinance was introduced last week, and sponsors say they hope the penalties will improve attendance, and bypass truancy laws already on the books in Alaska.

The ordinance was several years in the making, said Fairbanks school district interim superintendent Karen Gaborik, and was a collaboration between the assembly and school district. Data shows that if students are present 90 percent of the time, their chances of graduating increase significantly, Gaborik said.

Alaska continues to struggle with its graduation rate. A survey released Monday by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that Alaska had one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation for the 2011-12 school year, with 70 percent of Alaska students graduating. Only the District of Columbia and Nevada have lower graduation rates. For the 2010-11 school year, Alaska's graduation rate was 68 percent.

The ordinance "brings the parent into the conversation," Gaborik said, and starts a dialogue about attendance.

Fines stiffen with each offense: For the first offense, parents would face a fine of $50 if a student missed five days of school unexcused. At that point, if a student showed up every day for the next two months, the fine would be waived.

For a second offense, if a student missed another five days, parents would be fined $100. An additional five days means another $200 fine.

For elementary students, a full-day absence would be defined as missing more than half the school day. A partial-day absence would be when a student misses more than 60 minutes. For middle school and high school students, a full day would be recorded as missing more than 50 percent of scheduled classes, or missing three classes on different days. Students would be marked absent for a class if they were more than 10 minutes late, or if they left the class more than 10 minutes early.

Students ages 16 years or older would end up incurring the fines themselves, Kassel said. Two district safety liaison positions would review the truancy cases. The school district would still have the ability to take a truancy case to court.

Alaska truancy laws

Alaska already has two truancy laws on the books. The first is a violation when a student misses five days of school in an unexcused absence, which can bring a $500 fine. The second is a misdemeanor, which can result in a mandatory court appearance, when a person causes or encourages a child under 16 to be "repeatedly absent from school, without just cause."

But the law isn't used often in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. "It's not an effective system, and it's something that the school district hesitates to try to utilize," Kassel said.

Kassel said the ordinance is an attempt to streamline the law already on the books, saving both parents and the borough money. Going through the court system is "very cumbersome," Kassel said.

The fines written into the ordinance are also less than what a parent would pay if they were dragged into a court proceeding, Kassel said.

In Nome, district attorney John Earthman said that he gets regular referrals of truancy from schools across the Bering Strait School District. He began processing these cases in 2011. Right now, he has roughly half a dozen cases that need to be taken to court, he said, some of which are on probation for past truancy offenses. While taking parents to court "hasn't solved the problems by any means," it's still important, he said.

"Over time, (it sets) the expectation that kids have got to go, they just can't afford not to," Earthman said. He said that referrals from Shishmaref have dropped off following some charges being filed, he said. "I think it has had an effect."

Playing parent?

Fairbanks North Star Borough assembly member Lance Roberts wrote briefly about the ordinance on Tuesday in the Fairbanks Conservative List that he curates. He asked, "Do we really need the Borough trying to play the role of the parent here?"

"This is less onerous than the existing state law," Kassel said. "I don't think it's expanding 'big brother' oversight."

Kassel does not believe the ordinance puts too much pressure on parents whose kids are skipping class. "I'm sure some children are more challenging than others to get to school, but the borough is tasked with providing an education to all students," Kassel said.

Graduation rates are some of the lowest in the nation, and the borough can "try to throw a lot of money at it, but if the student isn't at the school, nothing's going to change," Kassel said.

He called the ordinance an "easy fix" that doesn't burden the taxpayers. "Taxpayers of this community are paying for that seat, whether the student attends school or not," he said. "We're not trying to make any money or hit people's pockets," Kassel said. The borough just "wants to get (parents') attention."

Anchorage School District changes and incentives

The Anchorage School District revamped its attendance policy at the beginning of the school year, including a change to automatically mark students who are absent as "unexcused" until parents provide an explanation.

The changes were part of a larger effort to increase attendance rates, with the goal of having a 90 percent attendance rate for all students by the year 2020, according to ASD spokesperson Heidi Embley. That means missing no more than 17 days per school year. In 2013, attendance rates ranged from just 57 percent of 12th-graders hitting that goal to 82.3 percent of sixth-graders.

One thing that does appear to be working to improve those numbers is an incentive program. Elementary students with no unexcused absences are entered into a drawing for a laptop or trip to Disneyland. Middle school students as well as freshmen and sophomores have a variety of prizes they can win, while juniors and seniors who have perfect attendance are entered into a drawing for a new car. Around 400 juniors and seniors remain in the running with about a month of school left, Embley said, "more than what it was last year."

The incentive "appears to be working well," Embley said. Winning the car is "definitely on people's mind, and people are talking about it."

ASD also employs its school resource officers to speak with students about attendance. "Sometimes it makes a pretty big difference when a police officer is showing up at your school," Embley said.

After a long period without enforcement, ASD did begin prosecuting truancy cases during the 2011-12 school year -- just a few cases.

"We don't want to get to the point where parents are prosecuted, we want to continue to find ways to get kids to school," Embley said. That includes programs such as providing breakfast at low-income schools. The district has not considered imposing fines on parents, Embley said.