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VOL. 112 | NO. 53 | Friday, April 3, 1998

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Driving academic performance Driving academic performance State tries to improve high school attendance and academics through driving privileges By DIANNA DEAREN The Daily News In 1997, 32 percent of the students in Memphis City Schools dropped out, as did 15 percent of high school students statewide. Improving these rates has been a priority for the states Department of Education for nearly a decade, following 1990 legislation that revoked drivers license privileges for high school dropouts and students with poor attendance. If a student misses 10 consecutive days or 15 total days in a semester which are unexcused absences, school officials are required by the states truancy law to submit the students name to the Department of Safety. The local school determines whether an absence is excused or unexcused. Typically, excused absences include sickness, a doctors appointment or a school-sponsored activity, officials said. It is then the responsibility of the Department of Safety to revoke or suspend a license. Last year, the General Assembly took this policy one step further, requiring proper enrollment status and "satisfactory academic progress" to maintain driving privileges. "The law says that students who do not have satisfactory academic progress, which means passing three subjects at the end of the semester, or if the school is on a block schedule, weve interpreted that to mean they have to pass half of their classes in a semester," said Scott Owens, attendance administrator with the Department of Education. "If they do not, the school by law has to send their name in to the Department of Safety for students 15- to 18-years-old." There is no way of determining if the new provision is improving grades, but attendance numbers over the last few years do not suggest the truancy law has had a big effect. Statewide, attendance rates for grades seven through 12 have been fairly consistent over the last few years, varying from 91.8 percent to 92.1 percent since 1992, according to department records. Last school years rate of 92 percent was close to the Department of Educations 93 percent goal. However, administrators said the policy is important to maintain. "It shows the student that attendance is important and that grades are important, and its so important that your license could be revoked if you let those slide," Owens said. While driving privileges may motivate students to go to school, many other factors also affect attendance, said Cordova High School principal Dr. Patti Ray. "Sometimes students dont feel well in the morning, and they truly may not feel well. Some other students who may not have done their work the night before may not want to come to school. Therere all kinds of factors," Ray said. Attendance for Cordova varies from 95 percent to 97 percent, Ray said, and attendance rates also are high at Germantown and Collierville high schools. Shelby County has a policy that if students meet a certain grade point average and have not had more than three excused absences per semester in a class, they are exempt from that classs exam, which could motivate some students to attend class regularly, she said. However, Ray said her personal research has shown home and school influences are two main factors affecting a students attendance. "I did my dissertation on this topic, and the single greatest factor in getting a child to come to school comes from the home. School becomes the next factor, but it starts in the home," Ray said. "The reward for coming to school needs to come from an intrinsic type of feeling of accomplishment. Thats the greatest reward one can have." While improving attendance is one goal of the policy, decreasing the dropout rate is another. Owens said the attendance and academic policy should help improve the state dropout rate, which was 15.6 percent for the 1996-97 academic year, a 1 percent decrease from the previous year. The dropout rate for Memphis City Schools decreased from 35.2 percent in 1995-96 to 31.9 percent last year, while the rate for Shelby County Schools has varied from 4 percent to 6 percent for the last two school years. "I think its helping a lot. Even a part of a percent is pretty helpful. When you talk about even Memphis coming down 4 percent in a year, thats pretty good," Owens said. Tennessee school attendance (statewide): grades seven-12 1992-93 92 percent 1993-94 91.9 percent 1994-95 91.8 percent 1995-96 92.1 percent 1996-97 92 percent
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