Kari Hammersmith, a senior at Mesa’s Red Mountain High School, has learned a difficult lesson about the rules of life, especially when those rules have become so rigid they interfere with the goals and values they are supposed to support.
Tribune writer Andrea Falkenhagen reported last week Hammersmith didn’t get to graduate with her classmates because she had too many absences during what was supposed to be her final semester. The rule that Red Mountain enforced is clearly communicated to every student; Hammersmith and her parents should have known what would happen when she missed more than nine days of class. But this particular application of the attendance rule, refusing to grant a diploma, is far too harsh when students such as Hammersmith still maintain good grades and pass the AIMS test.
Attending class is an essential part of a student’s education. Successful teaching relies on detailed explanation of concepts that move from simple to complex like building blocks. Frequent breaks can disrupt the “construction” of these concepts because the student isn’t exposed to some of the building blocks. Makeup homework and extra reading often can’t replace the role of direct instruction and interaction between teacher and students.
But attendance isn’t the sole indication of a knowledgeable student. Mesa educators know this, that’s why they grant teenagers unlimited absences from class when they are participating in schoolsponsored activities. Overachieving students who participate in multiple programs such as sports teams, speech and debate, Academic Decathlon and traveling choirs, can accumulate weeks of class absences without any penalties.
Americans place a premium on test scores as the most acceptable means of determining whether children have learned in school. If students perform well on those tests, despite a high number of absences, it’s hypocritical and intrinsically unfair to deny those students their ultimate reward — a high school diploma.
This isn’t just a piece of paper and a graduation party we’re talking about. Teens without diplomas can’t enroll in college, join the military or take just about any full-time job that pays above minimum wage. Even a delay in receiving a diploma for a few months or a year will interrupt a young person’s life at a crucial moment on the path to becoming an adult, a parent and a productive member of society.
Schools can send strong messages about the importance of attending class by lowering grades for absences or by requiring students to attend special tutoring sessions at night or on weekends.
But automatically withholding diplomas from good students who miss an arbitrary number of classes, while they are watching some classmates go on one school-related trip after another, is a cruel punishment that does not fit the offense.