Special Education

Medically Fragile Students and the Attendance Trap

By Christina A. Samuels — October 14, 2008 1 min read
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Special education officials often complain about how the testing provisions of No Child Left Behind penalize schools with high numbers of students with disabilities, but the Washington Post had an interesting story on the front page today about a lesser-known problem: schools with high numbers of medically fragile students may get penalized under the law because their students don’t meet the law’s daily attendance standards.

Stephen Knolls School suffered the ignominy of failure under federal law in 2006 and 2007 for low test scores. This year, the Kensington school finally made the grade in reading and math -- only to be sanctioned for poor attendance. The challenge in this case is not truancy. Stephen Knolls serves medically fragile children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and Rett syndrome. One student missed 119 days of school last year because of illness. An 8th grade boy logged more than 80 absences before dying in January. When school health aides call home for routine matters, they take pains to begin each conversation by saying, "This is not an emergency," because parents generally prepare for the worst. "We know that there are legitimate reasons for [students] to be home," said Tina Shrewsbury, school coordinator. "They're going to [medical] specialists. . . . They're having lab tests done. They're being hospitalized."

However, Stephen Knolls could be exempted from this rule, as a special education center. Its students could be counted, for NCLB purposes, at their “base” school. Montgomery County, Md., where this school is located, has chosen not to exercise this provision.

...Montgomery school officials say it would be disingenuous to pretend that Stephen Knolls students attended any other school. Many of them have never studied anywhere else. Montgomery officials say the school deserves credit for working hard against long odds to make academic progress. "We're not looking to beat the system. We're just looking for some common sense to be applied to it," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff to Montgomery Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

This doesn’t just happen to schools with a high population of medically fragile students. My colleague, David Hoff, recently wrote a short article about a Utah school that was facing similar sanctions because its student population, primarily Ute Indians, were missing class because of tribal obligations.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.