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    Exam exemption lures kids to school

    In a new law, the Legislature erased an attendance incentive: exam exemptions. But many schools will continue the practice.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


    High school principals say they need all the help they can get to keep students in class, day in and day out. One of the most effective incentives: exam exemptions to reward stellar attendance.

    "Having an exam exemption, whatever you call it, definitely has improved attendance in Pinellas County schools," said Barbara Thornton, principal at Largo High, whose attendance is about 93 percent each day. "The data is there to show that."

    This year, the Legislature took that incentive away. Tucked in the middle of a bill primarily about school safety, the new law says, "A student's attendance record may not be used in whole or in part to provide an exemption from any academic performance requirement."

    Although Hillsborough County decided to end its attendance incentives after the law passed, Pinellas School Board attorney John Bowen thinks he has found a way around it.

    In a measure approved Tuesday by the School Board, Bowen eliminated the old policy of exam exemptions based on high grades and few absences and replaced it with a set of "exam requirements."

    Under the district's new policy, students with a B or better are not required to take all of their finals. But no matter a student's grades, exams are required for students with more than 10 absences per semester on a six-period schedule or five absences per quarter on a block schedule.

    "Now they are required to take them if they don't have good grades and they have bad attendance," Bowen said. "It's just the flip side. It's the same result."

    At Superintendent Howard Hinesley's recommendation, the School Board voted 4-3 to approve the policy. In the decade or so that Pinellas has rewarded going to school, he said, the district's high school attendance rate has climbed from 89 percent to about 93 percent.

    "I think if you don't have some way other than just saying, "You need to be there,' we know from experience that attendance will drop," Hinesley said. "It's generally kids that do pretty well. They don't see any need to come, so they don't."

    Bowen argues that the decision to reward students for good grades or good attendance really should belong to local school districts. School Board member Linda Lerner, who voted against the new policy, agrees -- she just doesn't think what Bowen wrote is legal.

    "I have problems with exemptions based on attendance," Lerner said. "I tried to look at it the way John was interpreting it, but I just don't agree with him."

    Board members Jane Gallucci and Susan Latvala also voted against the new rule, saying Bowen's creative wording violates the spirit of the legislation. They briefly discussed getting an attorney general's opinion on the rule, which Bowen said his entire office concurred was legal.

    "If the Legislature wanted to require exams in all courses, they could have passed a law that said that," Bowen said. "But they didn't."

    School Board member Lee Benjamin, former principal of Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, said he trusts Bowen's advice. Even with good grades and good attendance, students can opt out of only some exams. That means all students, he said, will have the final exam experience.

    "I think the fact that 16 principals really pleaded for the continuation of this policy shows me that it's working and needs to be given consideration -- by the state Legislature and the School Board," he said.

    Rewarding attendance is nothing new, but it has taken on greater urgency in recent years. State-issued school grades are based on numerous factors, including annual state exams and attendance.

    Hillsborough County proved that it works to give prizes for showing up. In the 1999-2000 school year, Hillsborough schools boosted grades for middle schoolers and let high schoolers skip some final exams.

    "It was a very successful policy for our district," said Beth Shields, deputy superintendent for instruction. "Some schools came up as much as 3 percentage points, and that's a lot."

    Despite the success, Hillsborough let the policy lapse when the new state law was passed.

    It could make a quick come-back -- at least Shields hopes so. Hillsborough recently has been declared a charter district, freeing it from some state rules.

    Despite the support in Pinellas and Hillsborough, rewarding attendance is a rare practice throughout the state. In a survey of school districts, Pinellas administrator Nancy Zambito found that about 23 allow students with good grades to opt out of some exams.

    But only about three districts -- including De Soto, Dixie and Highlands -- reward good attendance. According to Zambito's survey, Citrus and Pasco don't let students opt out of exams; Hernando lets seniors exempt two exams if they have a B or better in the class. Hernando used to tie exemptions to attendance, but that ended several years ago.

    At Tarpon Springs High School, attendance hovers around 93 percent, a number that principal John Nicely says is good. Having the power to free loyal students from nerve-racking exams could keep that attendance rate up.

    "You still have kids that do skip, particularly younger kids," Nicely said. "Anything we can do to keep them in school."

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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