Seniors receive behavior contracts for excessive absences

With chronic absenteeism rising to 30%  statewide last school year, according to Policy Analysis for California Education,  TPHS administration is cracking down on absences among seniors with the senior contract — issuing approximately 90 contracts since the start of the year, according to Assistant Principal Robert Shockney. Senior contracts, or “behavior contracts,” as TPHS Principal Rob Coppo called them, are issued to students who have missed around 10% of the school year. They typically involve monthly meetings with an assistant principal about a student’s attendance, according to Shockney, and are given to students whose attendance causes alarm to teachers and administration.                             

Last school year, 21% of TPHS seniors reported they had missed three or more days of school in 30 days, the highest percent of all grades, according to data from the 2022-23 Healthy Kids Survey. Compared to before the pandemic, schools across California are now experiencing nearly twice the rate of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10% or more of school days. This attendance has a financial impact: TPHS loses $68.96 per student for every day absent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

“[Attendance] is out of control,” Coppo said.

Shockney agreed.

“Attendance is terrible right now,” he said. “The seniors that I’m engaged with … I’ve seen improvements on. But in general, attendance in schools is not getting better.”

Autumn Bellenbaum (12) is one student on a senior contract. She received the contract in the first few weeks of second semester and is now “under close surveillance with attendance.”

“I didn’t know about [senior contracts] until I got one,” Bellenbaum said.

Bellenbaum said that she had not realized how much school she was missing, which she attributes to taking on many “extra courses and activities … outside of class.”

Once a senior contract is issued, students cannot reverse them, according to Shockney. However, even if a student remains on their contract for the remainder of the school year, consequences are only issued if their attendance does not improve. 

“[Senior contracts are] very effective because anytime you are having a productive conversation with a student about their choices, it tends to be effective,” Coppo said. “When you know there are consequences, behavior tends to change.” 

Consequences vary by case, according to Coppo, but students on senior contracts can lose access to senior week activities, ASB cards, games, prom and walking at graduation. Of the 25 to 30 senior contracts Shockney has issued since the start of the year, he said only two have resulted in a loss of access to one of these events.

“[Senior contracts] are more just to hold the line,” Shockney said. “I give [seniors] all the way up until the end to get it right.”

Bellenbaum does not have any consequences at the moment; however, she will have to go to her assistant principal to ask for permission to attend senior week activities. 

The contracts are “designed to support the senior,” Coppo said. “We want to give [students] the benefit of the doubt that maybe they didn’t know [about their attendance] … typically, the seniors, [once a contract is issued,] are like, ‘Okay, I didn’t know it was a big deal, I’ll fix it.’”

For Ford Smith (12), another student on a senior contract, having a contract has been effective. Smith does not know what his consequences are yet, and is currently awaiting an evaluative meeting with an assistant principal. 

“I have had much better attendance, and I get my work done much more efficiently,” Smith said.

Bellenbaum shared a different perspective on the senior contract.

“Senior contracts put you in a state of fear of being restricted [from participating] in activities you’ve been looking forward to,” she said. “[But] the contracts can’t change your habits in one day. And they stimulate a sense of resistance and rebellion [that] I have seen in many people who have gotten a contract.”

While senior contracts target absences in the senior class — “to counter senioritis,” as Shockney said — the same 10% absenteeism cut-off is used for other grade levels, according to Shockney. Earlier this year, SDUHSD created a “centrally formalized” tiered approach to attendance interventions, Shockney told the Falconer in September 2023. Contacting students and their families initially after 12 absences, and organizing a Student Study Team meeting if those home calls go unanswered, this tiered approach caps off with a School Attendance Review Board meeting at the district level after 15 absences.

However, consequences for repeated absences below this level are given out by teachers.

For Olivia Bogert, an AP Literature teacher, five tardies constitute a warning, and if those warnings are ineffective, she issues a detention. So far, Bogert has not referred any students for a senior contract. 

“Being tardy is disrespectful to the class and to the teacher, especially if it is habitual … The biggest thing in my classroom is that we have assessments [during] first period … and when a student walks in late it is very distracting,” Bogert said. “[Tardies and absences] also prevent [the student] from being able to have the whole class to work on their work … it is just not the scenario you hope for.”  

Photo illustration by Anna Opalsky/Falconer

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