It was one of those heartbreaking decisions teachers can barely stand to make, yet Mary Redclay felt bound by a moral obligation to make it.
Her student had performed exceptionally well in the educator’s 12th grade English class—earning all A’s in fact—but Ms. Redclay felt compelled to fail the young woman because of excessive absences and tardiness, as warranted by what she believes the school’s 4-year-old attendance policy to be.
“The girl is wonderful, but she missed 10 days and was tardy 13 times out of 41 days,” said Ms. Redclay, who teaches English at the 2,400-student Palisades Charter High School, a math, science, and technology charter-magnet school located in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Ms. Redclay was one of 40 teachers who recorded 130 F’s in their grade books last month in just such a gesture.
Now, the administrators who oversee the charter operation within the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District say the marks may have to be voided because the board of education did not approve the attendance policy.
Not only has the decision rankled the teachers, who argue that their charter school is exempt from such governance, but it also has sparked a heated conversation about standards, accountability, teachers’ rights, and the influence of politically powerful parents.
“We will not bend from our position in support of the attendance policy,” said Ms. Redclay, who also serves as a co-chairwoman of the Palisades faculty senate. “Students and parents—as well as teachers and administrators—must be held accountable. We intend to meet the district in court if necessary.”
Approval Not Sought
The Palisades Charter High School is a jewel within the LAUSD. The school campus, which draws 2,400 students from around the city, includes sweeping views of both the ocean and the mountains.
For that very reason, the faculty devised a strict attendance policy, Ms. Redclay said. Any student who misses more than six days of class per semester without a valid excuse will be flunked without consideration of his or her academic achievements, she said. Tardiness is also factored in: Three such incidents equal one absence. Illness and extenuating circumstances are considered, and an appeals process is in place, she said.
“It is spring in California,” Ms. Redclay said. “Without the policy, we won’t see the seniors again.”
But district administrators who oversee the charter school say officials never submitted the attendance policy for school board action, thus making it nonbinding. In such cases, they maintain, the school must rely on the policies of the Los Angeles school district.
“That policy follows our state code,” said Carol J. Dodd, the LAUSD official who is in charge of overseeing the charter school. “Attendance is not to be used as a reason to fail students. They are to be graded on the work they do.”
State officials said last week they were unable to shed much light on the issue, largely because governance and jurisdiction differ in nearly every arrangement between charter schools and their sponsoring districts. California’s charter law was written to free such schools from many of the regulations and laws in place in traditional schools, and those rules are set at the local level, said Eileen Cubanski, who oversees charter schools for the state education department.
Under the state education code, districts may authorize teachers to fail students based on their attendance record in regular public schools, but that regulation does not apply to charter schools, added Kim Clement, a fiscal consultant to the district.
Ms. Redclay, however, said that district administrators had the attendance policy in their possession when Palisades Charter High was approved. The charter school status, she contended, gives faculty members the flexibility to set their own rules, regardless.
Teachers have been encouraged to change the failing grades, but won’t be required to do so, Ms. Dodd said. Nor will educators be disciplined, she said.
Such punishment was insinuated in a March 5 memo written by Principal Linda Hosford and distributed to faculty members. Ms. Hosford did not elaborate on punishments in the letter and could not be reached for comment.
Truancy on Rise?
The district will soon begin an appeals process for those students who argue that the grades they received were unfair, Ms. Dodd said.
“At that time, it will be up to the board of education to change the grades if teachers refuse to do so,” she said.
But the students who failed have already been through the appeals process once, according to Ms. Redclay. The district is simply bending to the will of a few politically connected parents who want to ensure that their children pass, she said.
“I sat in on those [meetings],” Ms. Redclay said. “I was not about to grant an appeal to someone who can’t get up in the morning.”
Instead of serving as a lesson about accountability for students, the episode has evolved into a course on locating loopholes, Ms. Redclay charged. Truancy at the high school is increasing, she added, as students get word of the flap over the disputed policy.
Merle Price, the deputy superintendent for instruction for the LAUSD and a former principal at Palisades High, said that the charter school’s policy “helps [students] focus on the fact that they can’t take a casual attitude.”
Unfortunately, he said, that lesson cannot be applied in this instance.
State lawmakers are attempting to clarify the issue of governance and jurisdiction in charter schools during this legislative session because it has been so problematic, said Gerry Shelton, the administrator of the fiscal-policy office for the education department. “A lot of issues surrounding charter schools have some ambiguity,” he said, noting that many situations “can be interpreted a couple of different ways.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as LAUSD Orders Charter School To Scrap Its Attendance Policy