If We Want to Improve Schools, Let’s Re-Think Attendance: An Open Letter

A lesser-known aspect of Newton’s Law of Gravity is that unlike objects will be increasingly attracted to each other based on the degree of awkwardness within their climate.

“What’s your name, again? Sorry.”


“Right. Okay.”

I picked at the pepperoni resting atop my complimentary two slices of pizza, eluding eye contact with my new companion. Maddie rested her chin on the heel of her palm and puffed her cheeks out like a trumpet player, slowly effusing her own self-pity. In all honesty, I couldn’t blame her.

“I can’t believe you’re the only senior here,” I remarked, absently.

“I can,” she responded. With nothing else to say, we went back to our complimentary pizzas.

Perhaps “complimentary” isn’t an accurate way to describe our meals, nor to contextualize the nature of mine and Maddie’s acquaintance. This was the Perfect Attendance Luncheon, a reward doled out by East High’s administration at the end of the fall semester. Eligible attendants must have been given zero absences, excused or unexcused, and zero tardies through the entire semester of school. The thirty of us received letters, given to us in our 7th period classes a week prior to the event, which notified us that we were invited to attend. I, personally, hid my letter in my backpack as soon as it was handed to me, too embarrassed to be proud of the accomplishment.

Before we could enter the school dance studio, where the luncheon was held, the Dean of Attendance made us shuffle into a single-file line outside the door and show him our student IDs, which he checked against a list of names. He congratulated us on our superb accomplishment, told us to take no more than two slices of pizza and one soda, and asked us not to leave the luncheon early to be with our friends.

The dance studio was lit by dirty tungsten light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. The entire North wall was plated with mirrors, duplicating the humiliation as we quietly stood in line for our pizza and soda. The hall was dotted with round plastic tables and uncomfortable folding chairs, borrowed from the lunch room one floor below us. A table quickly filled with freshman boys and another with freshman girls, which left Maddie and me as stragglers. Without conferring or even making eye contact, we both made a b-line to the furthest table from the door.

After getting his own pizza, the Dean of Attendance, a curt and taut middle aged man, realized that he, too, would have to choose where to sit. It was unfortunate but no surprise when he chose to sit next to Maddie and me.

“So you’re both seniors?”

“I’m a junior, actually,” I said, erring on the edge of timidity.

“Well, congratulations to both of you.” He bit into his slice of pizza.

“You know,” the dean remarked, “I was curious about this group, so I decided I would find out what your average GPA is.”

He popped his Doctor Pepper can open and quickly took a sip, stopping the fizzing cola from leaping out of the lid and spilling all over the plastic table.

“And,” he continued, “It’s a 3.9.”

“Wow,” said Maddie.

“Pretty good,” I added.

“Do you think there’s a correlation between your attendance and your grades?”

“Definitely,” said Maddie.

“No doubt,” I agreed. It was 11:25AM. Thirty more minutes until 6th period.

It came as no surprise when I was told that I had gotten perfect attendance last semester. I hadn’t been making a conscious effort to never be absent; that’s just the kind of student I was and still am. I figure that school is for learning, and since I enjoy learning it makes sense that I would go to school as often as possible. Waking up at 6AM every day just to ditch class seems backwards to me.

However, you should understand up front that just because I have perfect attendance, it doesn’t mean that I like school. In fact, this is very far from the truth. I hate school, not because of the regular “lazy teenager” reasons about sleep deprivation and getting too much homework. I hate school because every day I show up, slump my body into desks that don’t fit me, get counted as present on the attendance roster, and then proceed to not be challenged, captivated, or engaged, and walk out of the building with perfect grades, day after day.

I am a fantastic student. I’ve gotten nothing less than an A in every single one of my classes since the 7th grade. My schedule is entirely honors and AP. The trouble is, being a fantastic student gets me nowhere in the way of being a happy, successful student. In many ways, it only makes the situation worse.

As what I would deem an accurate cross-section of daily student life for me and those similar to me, allow me to take you through what I did today in my classes.

Honors Spanish 4–– The teacher re-explained the last portion of our homework assignment for this Friday, and then re-answered questions from students. Grades in the class are based on homework and a cash-flow of “pe$os” which can be earned by students who raise their hands and participate in class, answering questions in Spanish. However, due to requests from the teacher’s supervisors, the laissez-faire pe$o system has become socialist, and students can only participate when their name is drawn from a stack of cards. My name was called relatively early in the class period, which meant that I was free to complete the homework assignment for Friday in-class and zone out for the rest of the period.

AP English Language–– A counselor came in and made all Juniors apply to take the state-mandated ACT next month. The seniors in the class chatted and played on their phones. Once the Juniors finished, we socialized until the bell rang. The ACT registration was irregular, but the socializing wasn’t. Most lessons in AP Lang finish within the first thirty minutes of class.

Honors Pre-Calculous–– Students were free to work in small groups to study for the upcoming test on Friday. Today was a Tuesday. No new material was covered, which is pretty regular for the week before a test.

AP Music Theory–– We listened to musical excerpts and answered practice multiple-choice questions about them, in preparation for the AP test in May. At this point, every single class is dedicated to studying for the test.

Honors Jazz Combo–– We had a substitute teacher and the class struggled to keep productive. This is a daily issue, caused by the director’s talkative assistants, who don’t play in the band and effectively treat the class as an off-period.

Honors Physics–– Exactly the same as Pre-Calc. Letter for letter.

AP US History–– Watched a 15 minute YouTube video about the 1970s, worked in groups on an assignment that wouldn’t be collected or graded. I worked on the assignment diligently and completed it with an abundance of time to join into the conversation that my group was having about March Madness.

So clearly there’s a problem with my education, and I’m bold enough to say that there’s a problem with everyone’s high school education. It’s a numbers game.

From the time a student walks into class and is counted as present to the time she leaves the building, loaded with homework assignments which, if done correctly and turned in on time, will numerically benefit the percentage she has in her various classes, and raise the numbers on the standardized, multiple choice tests she will take at the end of the year, the entire experience of being a student is a game of accounting. 

99% of success is showing up, that’s true, but there’s a difference between a person’s body showing up to class and their mind showing up for it. My body got perfect attendance last semester. My mind did considerably worse.

So, how are we to consider solving this issue? How would we raise the attendance rate of a student’s mind instead of focusing on the attendance rate of her body?

I want to propose a solution to this problem. It’s a solution that’s remarkably unorthodox and currently illegal in the state of Colorado. It’s backwards and presents many obvious difficulties. But it’s a proposal that I stand by with all of my might, one that I genuinely believe would create real progress in the school system.

Attendance should not be mandatory in school.

This is a proposition that comes with many caveats. For one, not all students should enjoy non-mandatory attendance. It should be a privilege, one earned by college-bound students with good grades that take challenging classes. Like anything else, the choice to show up to class is taught, at first, by enforcement. If we told middle schoolers, or even underclassmen in high school, that they didn’t have to go to class, it would have ruinous effects on their educational careers. Students need to learn how to be accountable and develop a work ethic for their future professional lives.

However, mandatory attendance gets teachers off of the hook too easily. Just today, for example, I went to all of my classes because if I didn’t, my parents would get seven emails saying that their son was absent in each of his seven classes. If I kept my absences up any longer, the Dean of Attendance would pull me out of class, intimidate me (as I’ve confirmed by talking to multiple students about this), put me on an attendance contract, and sent me to lunch detention in the cafeteria. But, considering what I did in all of my classes, it’s difficult to convince myself that it was worth showing up to most of them.

I go to school because I love teachers. I love being inspired and engaged by experts who are just as passionate about learning as I am. I think teachers are the greatest, most noble human beings on the face of the earth. But, frankly, teachers can also be lazy. Some really shouldn’t be teaching in the first place, and others aren’t paid enough to be exciting and creative every weekday. There is no definite reason for teachers to make every single one of their classes worth coming to, because their students have to show up either way. So, neither one of us has a real reason to come to school, excited and inspired, every day of the week. Non-mandatory attendance would change that.

Just today, as an example, I would have gone to Spanish, left AP Lang early to go see what I would be doing in Pre-Calc, where I would discover that it wasn’t worth going to class at all. I would have gone to the library to do homework until AP Music theory, which I would stay in but probably leave early to go to lunch. After lunch I would go to band, instantly leave Physics and instead go to AP US History one period early, and then I would either drive home or do more homework at school until the end of the day.

In this case, my attendance would reflect my honest assessment of each classes’ value. If every student were free to come and go from classes as they pleased, attendance in each class would reflect that teacher’s own ability to make class redeeming to show up for, numerically and in terms of engagement. Teachers are only obliged to produce quality test scores. If students weren’t required to go to their class, teachers would be obliged to produce quality lesson plans and thus, quality students. Great teachers would have full classes and poor teachers would have small ones.

Some of the best education systems in the world––those in Finland and Denmark––are great because of the way the society treats teachers. Teachers are considered, as they should be, the most valuable assets a country can have. In the long run, a culture where teachers are challenged to engage their students, instead of one where they simply have to load their students with information, would instigate progress in the direction of the top ranked education systems in the world, where a teacher’s craft is put first.

One obvious and immediate problem with non-mandatory attendance is that if students don’t have to come to school, many wouldn’t come whether the class was engaging or not. This is true, but not to a terrible extent. Ultimately, there is a correlation between high grades and attendance, like it was so helpfully pointed out to me by the Dean of Attendance at the Perfect Attendance Luncheon. Parents who notice their children’s grades slipping would force them to starting showing up to class, at the very least enough to bring their grades up. Schools could  enforce attendance for students whose grades fall below a C+.

I’m confident that non-mandatory attendance wouldn’t drastically change schools at face value. By the time students are Juniors and Seniors in high school, they’ve become acclimated to the student lifestyle. They understand that they need to go to class in order to get acceptable grades and pass tests, and honestly if they weren’t in class they wouldn’t have much else to do in the middle of the day, besides homework.

Most colleges don’t have mandatory attendance, and most college students end up doing fine. In fact, it seems counter intuitive that AP classes, which are college classes, after all, wouldn’t have non-mandatory attendance.

What non-mandatory attendance would change is how students go to school. If a student shows up to class, it’s because she wants to be there, or that she needs to be there to succeed. And that sense of purpose would benefit everybody in the room.

If we are to solve America’s crisis in education, we cannot continue confining children and limiting their rights as autonomous human beings. The right to choice and autonomy should be granted to students who deserve it.

Make no mistake, I am not proposing that we make schools easier. I’m proposing that they become remarkably more challenging. It would mean that upper-level students would have to learn how to take responsibility for their own education. Teachers would have to be firm about refusing to help students with unexcused absences outside of class. But I believe that the modern high school student can rise to that challenge and leave school better for it.

Public school’s first pitfall is that they tend to shirk the responsibility they have to making their students happy and engaged learners, turning instead to a responsibility to high attendance rates, graduation rates, and test scores. And the student body’s first pitfall is that they tend to assume that they are powerless in the struggle to make school more positive.

But we are more powerful than the institution we are confined to.

We are more powerful than the Deans of Attendances, throwing their Perfect Attendance Luncheons in all of the public schools across the state and across the country. We are more powerful than state laws and mandates, those can be revised. We are more powerful than tax dollars and budgets, more powerful than national common CORE standards and the Department of Education.

We are more powerful than the powers that be because, quite simply, the future doesn’t belong to the Dean of Attendance and chain of people who tell him what to do.

The future belongs to us. And the battle to make that future into what we want it to be begins yesterday.

Denver Public School’s Policy JE- Student Attendance was last revised in 1996. It states that schools must develop disciplinary procedures that encourage daily student attendance. This is in accordance with Colorado House Bill 1021, which requires school districts to address students with a “significant number of unexcused absences.” It allows for legal action to be taken when necessary in order to keep students in class, including (at the end of the line) “detention for no more than five days in a juvenile detention facility.”

These policies are not inherently wrong or even misled. They’re intended to keep students in school–– on track to graduating and becoming helpful members of society. However, the act doesn’t say anything about grades or ages. The law applies to a 7th grader with Ds and Fs in the same way that it applies to a 12th grader with As and Bs. This is unjust to students who have earned the freedom to make their own choices, through time and hard work. The law should be amended in order to grant eligible students that right.

These laws can be amended, but only with your help. Do you want to see schools change? Email any of these state legislators with the link to this article, copy and paste your favorite paragraphs, and even put in your own piece of mind about the subject. And stay tuned in to updates, if there end up being any, about where all of this is going.

Louis Court, Denver House Member: Cap: 303-866-2967
E-mail: lois.court.house@state.co.us
Crisanta Duran, Denver House Member: Cap: 303-866-2925
E-mail: crisanta.duran.house@state.co.us
Mark Ferrandino, Denver House Member: Cap: 303-866-2346
E-mail: mark.ferrandino.house@state.co.us
Irene Aguilar, Denver State Senator: Cap: 303-866-4852
E-mail: irene.aguilar.senate@state.co.us
Lucia Guzman, Denver State Senator: Cap: 303-866-4862
E-mail: lucia.guzman.senate@state.co.us
Mike Johnston, Denver State Senator: Cap: 303-866-4864
E-mail: mike.johnston.senate@state.co.us




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