Wake-up call for students

NASHUA – Elementary school to high school, teachers and administrators alike are calling on the Board of Education to do something to address the attendance problems in the city.

The board’s policy committee has been hearing testimony from teachers and administrators on the district’s current attendance policies since the beginning of the school year.

Among the suggestions are to come up with policies that are more punitive and adding more staff that would be responsible for dealing with habitually truant students and their parents.

At a policy committee meeting earlier this month, elementary school teachers said they want to see a more strict attendance policy that gives them more authority to take action when students are missing school for unexcused reasons.

“There has to be some teeth behind this, some kind of consequences for these parents,” Bridget Charbonneau, a teacher at Amherst Street Elementary School, told the committee.

Charbonneau explained to the committee how absenteeism has a detrimental impact on education.

Missing just a few days, especially with a curriculum such as Everyday Math that builds upon itself, can have an effect for the rest of the year, she said. It hurts not only individual students, she said, but also the other students in the class because of having to get everyone caught up.

“The schools are struggling right now to do the best they can,” she said. “Really, it’s out of the children’s hands whether they’re going to school.”

Charbonneau said it’s critical to get students out of the habit of not coming to school when they’re still young. One of the problems is a lack of staffing to address the situation, she said.

“We need to establish the habit and value of going to school at the elementary schools,” she said, “and that is just not being done.”

Toothless policy

One of out every nine students is habitually truant in Nashua, according to data provided by the school district. Habitually truant is defined by the state as having unexcused absences totaling 20 half days.

A half day of absence means a student received at least three hours of instructional time, but less than a full day.

So far this school year, there have been 1,090 habitually truant students in Nashua. That is compared with 971 students two years ago for the entire school year, according to the state Department of Education.

“It’s getting worse,” said Brian Soraghan, the district’s lone attendance officer for the last 22 years. Schools refer cases of extreme truancy to Soraghan, who spends much of time making home visits and in court.

As the district’s only attendance officer, Soraghan said he gives priority to cases at the elementary schools, but teachers and administrators said having one truancy officer for all of the cases simply isn’t enough.

Mark Fenlon, an English teacher at Nashua High School North, said attendance is a serious issue at the high schools, as well.

“It’s a tremendous problem because nothing ever happens to the kids,” he said. “The current policy has no teeth at all. It doesn’t even have gums.”

Attendance Policies

Fenlon said he was teaching a foundations-level English class in the fall and among the 25 students, there were 109 unexcused absences in the first month. There are cases when students will accumulate 30 or 40 absences in a semester, he said.

So far this school year, North and South have a combined 600 habitually truant students, about 15 percent of the total high school enrollment.

Currently, there is nothing in the policy that indicates students will fail a course if they miss a certain number of days.

“Essentially, it’s an attendance policy in name only,” Fenlon said. “We’re allowing the most vulnerable students to fail by giving them a license to fail.”

The high school policy does state that students can’t make up tests or quizzes if they missed school because of an unexcused absence. It also states that class participation should represent at least 10 percent of each grade.

Fenlon said a group from the high schools had drafted a policy two years ago that would set a certain number of unexcused absences a student could have from a class before failing it, but the school board never approved it.

Fenlon said the problem would only become more complicated when the state’s mandatory school attendance age increases from 16 to 18 in July.

There was a proposal in the budget this year to create an attendance officer for each high school, but it’s unknown whether that will actually make it in the budget when it’s approved.

Parents aren’t accountable

Some schools have a higher rate of truancy than others.

Fifteen percent of students are habitually truant at Ledge Street Elementary School, which also has one of the highest poverty rates in the city.

Other elementary schools, such as Bicentennial and Main Dunstable, have only about 1 percent of students who are habitually truant. Those schools have poverty rates much lower than the district average.

Speaking before the policy committee earlier this month, Sheryl Laliberte, the school nurse at Main Dunstable, said this was the third or fourth time she had told the school board that something needs to change.

“We’re hurting the kids because we’re not holding the parents accountable to get their kids to school,” she said. “I don’t think it’s just an inner-city thing. It’s across the board.”

Laliberte said letters go out to parents when their children don’t show up, but they often have little effect.

“Some parents will call back out of frustration,” she said. “Other parents couldn’t care less.”

Scott Jaquith, assistant principal at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, said his school started a program this year in which for every minute children are late to school, they have to make up that time during recess.

“Even if it’s as simple as missing the Pledge of Allegiance, students would be making that up,” he said.

There have been some parents who have complained, telling the school that it was their fault, not their children’s fault, but Jaquith said the point is to make parents see the value of education.

Jaquith said many of the children who don’t show up are coming from homes of families who are in poverty and are receiving assistance from the government.

Although not a district issue, Jaquith said, “Maybe one condition should be their children attend school regularly.”

One of the issues the elementary group brought up was students who are attending schools outside of their neighborhood schools through a variance granted by the district.

Laliberte said many of those students are the ones who are having problems getting to school because their parents aren’t driving them. Students on variances aren’t provided transportation.

She proposed that if the student is absent for a certain number of days, that their variance is withdrawn and the student forced to attend their home school where they have transportation.

According to district policy, excused absences include illness or medical issues, religious holidays, funerals, personal or family emergencies, field trips and college visits.

Family vacations aren’t considered excused absences. The policy gives the district, not the parent, the authority to determine whether an absence is excused.

Longtime issue

Board of Education member Dennis Hogan, chairman of the policy committee, said the input has been valuable. The consensus has been that it’s important to have the students in school, he said.

However, Hogan said he isn’t sure yet that including some kind of punitive measures, either for the students or the parents, is going to help the problem.

The policy committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday night at Nashua High School North to hear from those working at the secondary level.

Hogan said it isn’t yet clear what’s going to happen to respond to the suggestions given by staff.

At the high school level, Hogan said he’s skeptical that setting a certain limit on days missed before failing a course would be effective.

“There’s no consensus that it’s going to motivate students,” he said. “It’s more complicated than just drawing a line.”

Fenlon argues that in the high schools he has seen institute that type of policy, attendance has improved over time. It may not be a popular decision, but one Fenlon would like to see the school board make.

“No one believes this is a magic bullet,” he said. “But if you don’t have them in school, you’ve got pretty much no chance.”

At the elementary level, Hogan said he liked the idea of taking away variances when parents aren’t following through by getting their children to school on time.

Ed Hendry, the district’s associate superintendent, said the problem of truancy has been an issue since he arrived in Nashua seven years ago. He wants to see something changed before the end of next year.

“It’s important to get it right,” he said. “Punitive procedures may not be the answer. We have to look at the reasons why kids are out.”

Soraghan said his caseload gets bigger every year and that he only has so much time to address the cases that are referred to him.

“There’s been a lot more focus on truancy this year and it’s working,” he said. “It’s just that there is so much to deal with.”

So far this year, Soraghan said he has received 131 referrals from Elm Street Middle School alone. He said he has been able to follow up on some of them, but that he just doesn’t have time for many of them.

Soraghan said he’s taking a different approach, bringing assistant principals and teachers along with him during his Friday visits to the homes of students who have been chronically absent.

Soraghan said it sends a stronger message to the parents to have a group of people show up. In one case, a girl was still in bed when they showed up and the teacher went up to her room and got her.

“The girl got out of bed and went to school and hasn’t missed a day since,” Soraghan said.

A state law, RSA 193:1, requires parents to make sure their children are going to school. That allows the district to take some parents to court when they fail to meet their responsibilities, Soraghan said.


Here is a breakdown of the number of habitually truant students per school in Nashua so far this year. Habitually truant is defined by the state as having unexcused absences totaling 20 half days in a school year. A half day means that a student received at least three hours of instructional time, but less than a full day.

Amherst Street
Birch Hill
Broad Street
Charlotte Ave.
Dr. Crisp
F’grounds Elem.
Ledge Street
Main Dunstable
Mount Pleasant
New Searles
Sunset Heights
Elm Street
F’grounds Middle
Nashua North
Nashua South
Phoenix Program

Source: Nashua School District