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Tougher New Whitney Young Attendance Policy Concerns Seniors Who Fear They’ll Miss Huge Events Like Prom

The new policy, implemented last week, prohibits seniors from having more than eight unexcused absences.

Whitney Young Magnet School wins Blue Ribbon Award for the second time.
Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
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NEAR WEST SIDE — A tougher attendance policy aimed at curbing “frivolous” absences among seniors at prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School is causing confusion among some students and parents.

The changes have students worried they’ll miss out on some of the biggest milestones of senior year for absences that don’t count against underclassmen, and show up for school sick when they might have stayed home in the past.

The new policy, implemented last week, prohibits seniors from having more than eight unexcused absences during the 2018-2019 academic school year, said Whitney Young Local School Council Chair Kristin Boeke-Greven. Students who do not maintain “a cumulative attendance rate of 95 percent or higher during their senior year” will not be eligible to participate in senior activities including prom, the school’s graduation ceremony and an annual senior luncheon, according to the new school policy.

According to the policy, which was emailed to parents on Aug. 31 before the start of the new school year, absences won’t count against senior students because of: hospital stays and prolonged absences due to health reasons, documented with a doctor’s note; college visits verified by a school counselor; and approved school functions, like a class trip.

But some parents say they are frustrated by the new rule. Senior parent Leon Greenberg said the new policy creates “dual attendance [regulations] for seniors and the rest of the student body.” Greenberg said underclassmen receive additional exemptions on what is “deemed valid as an excused absence.”

Under school policy, student illness, observance of a religious holiday, death in the immediate family and a family emergency are all “excused absences.” But the school’s new policy doesn’t state whether religious holidays, a family death or family emergency would count against a senior’s cumulative attendance, he said.

“If a kid is home sick for a day with a fever, that is an unexcused absence for a senior, but for every other student in the school it’s an excused absence,” Greenberg said. “Implementing these policies that are superfluous make no sense.” 

Greenberg said he was “livid” that his daughter missed temple for Rosh Hashanah to make sure she wasn’t “docked” toward the maximum excused absence.

“I think it’s not just unfair, but probably illegal that they can institute a policy like this,” Greenberg said.

Whitney Young Principal Dr. Joyce Kenner told Block Club Tuesday that religious holidays will also count as an excused absence for seniors and will not count against their cumulative attendance rate.

The principal said also said in a newsletter to parents that administrators would also consider not counting college visits and scholarship interviews as part of the student’s final attendance calculation.

Boeke-Greven, LSC chair and parent of a Whitney Young senior, acknowledged the policy needs to be clarified further.

“It didn’t specify religious observations, but it also didn’t spell out a death in the family…which would be an extenuating circumstance and obviously students would be excused,” she said. “Whitney Young needs to be more specific in the policy, and needs to clarify what is exempt, what are some of those extenuating circumstances.”

Kenner, the selective-enrollment school’s principal, said administrators would consider extenuating circumstances on a case by case basis, but urged parents to reach out with any questions they might have about the new policy.

Kenner said the new policy was necessary to cut down on “frivolous” absences after the school saw an increase among seniors in the previous graduating class.

“First of all, the policy is not too rigid,” she said. “We are trying to ensure the students come to school when they need to be at school.”

“We understand this is their final year and some students have ‘senioritis,’ but we strongly believe the policy and think this is important,” Kenner added.

In a recent newsletter, Kenner attempted to allay concerns by addressing a question about the new attendance policy.

Kenner wrote the school considered “seniors to be leaders of the school community and expect them to uphold the high standards we have for them.”

Kenner noted that a majority of students have “historically maintained a 95 percent attendance rate,” however, absences among seniors increased during their second semester.

Despite efforts to clarify the policy, students have raised questions on what counts as a valid excuse. 

Senior Gabrielle Greenberg, Leon’s daughter, said excused absences like illnesses because of the flu or a cold may be excused but would count as one of their eight permitted days to miss school without a doctor’s note.

“Even if you have an excused absence like you’re sick, that still goes against your attendance rate,” the 17-year-old said. “If I missed two days for a fever or a cold, I can only miss a few more days,” she said.

The Whitney Young High School senior said she missed days in her junior year and is concerned if it happens again, she won’t be able to go prom and graduation.

The new policy is “punishing” the current senior class for decisions made my former students, she said.

Gabrielle Greenberg’s classmates have expressed concerns about the policy and have been vocal with administrators and teachers, she said.

“[Students] keep questioning why [administrators] are doing it, and they keep getting the same response,” she said. “They keep saying, ‘Seniors last year did this, so we are making sure you don’t.’”

Boeke-Greven said the policy’s goal is to “encourage seniors to be present for the year and to really get the most out of their last year at Whitney Young.”

Boeke-Greven said the school did not have a senior attendance policy prior to the 2018-2019 academic years, but implemented the policy after “administrators looked at the data and saw a…drop off [in attendance] among senior students in their second semester.”

“I feel confident kids will be treated fairly,” she added. “I have a senior, and it really got seniors’ attention that they can’t blow off classes. They can’t get ‘senioritis.’”

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