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The Oracle investigates inconsistent late work, absence policies

Written by Shagun Khare and Katie Russell

Published in the October 8, 2015 issue

Senior Mara Greene was absent from school due to Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday, on Sept. 22 and Sept. 23 of this year to practice her faith. According to the California Education Code (Ed Code), the absence should have been excused and Greene should have been able to complete the work she missed without having her grade penalized. Greene would already have to take on the workload from her two excused absences. But if she received three or more absences, excused or unexcused, before the end of the semester, she would have to take on even more work—a five-paragraph essay as dic- tated by the late-work policy in one of her classes. “I end up losing sleep a lot and I can’t focus as much in other classes, because it adds to my stress. ” Greene said. “We already have school that day, which is hard because I’m missing classes, but then I get doubl[y] punished for missing it.”

There is currently no consistent late-work policy across all departments at Gunn, despite basic guidelines set by the Ed Code and the district’s expressed wish to improve alignment. The lack of a consistent late-work policy on campus, though a seemingly minute issue, is one that plays a substantial role in students’ academic progress and personal lives.

Late work is defined as any assignment that is turned in by a student after a deadline as determined by a teacher due to a student’s absence. At present, only the English department enforces a uniform department-wide late-work policy, while the math department determines late work policy based on subject, with a consistent policy for each course. The science and social studies departments do not have department-wide policies but rather oversee the policies of each teacher within the department. While steps toward consistency have been made, discrepancies between departments and noncompliance with the Ed Code continue to pervade Gunn’s classrooms.

Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Superintendent Dr. Max McGee acknowledged the need for better alignment in policies in order to improve student wellness. “Our survey data have shown us that there are inconsistencies in grading practices and homework practices,” he said. “I would like to see more consistency both within each high school and among schools, because what we hear from the students in surveys and classroom visits is that inconsistencies are a significant source of stress, and I agree.”

Prioritizing student concerns

Inconsistent late-work policies can significantly contribute to student stress, Greene says, because they induce anxiety due to differences between courses. “I’m less effective, a lot less efficient overall, because I’m stressed out with extra work,” Greene said.

In addition, while several Instructional Supervisors (IS) do not consider their department to enforce noncompliance or unethical policies, students such as Greene have noticed the opposite: teachers are not only enforcing unfair policies, but also enforcing policies that are not explicitly printed in teachers’ syllabi. Greene has been impacted by these policies and has noticed other students struggle because of their impacts as well. “I know all my friends who have talked about this [and] it’s added to all of their stress loads and made school harder for them,” Greene said. “They’re all really good students, and they never skip class, and if they miss class it’s for a [legitimate] reason. This extra thing doesn’t do anything other than add to their stress.”

Aiming for consistency

The English department instituted a department-wide late-work policy, the first of its kind, at the beginning of the current school year. This policy applies to all English classes regardless of lane, curriculum or teacher. “We wanted to align our policies to make sure that students had an expectation of what English class policy was—regardless of whose English class you are in, regardless of whether you switched at the semester, you have a baseline of expectation,” English IS Kristy Blackburn said.

According to Blackburn, the process for creating this set, which occurred over the summer, focused on aligning policies to create baseline expectations across the department. Alignment with Ed Code was determined by consulting with the administration, which advised the department on language and specific details. After conducting a series of surveys within English classes last year, the department used student input accordingly. “We were focused on students’ concerns about having different teachers and different expectations,” Blackburn said. “People were generally having an easy time switching from class to class, but they struggled with expectations being shifted, so we were trying to address that piece of keeping expectations similar across our courses.”

McGee commended the department for its consistency in policy and hopes to see other departments follow its example. “The first step is to have the faculty work within their departments and that’s the most important one,” McGee said. “And then the next step is, to the extent that we can, have consistency and alignment across the departments.”

Social studies IS Lynne Navarro believes that as Common Core begins to take effect, a consistent late-work policy could be beneficial with new state encouragement for alignment across classes. “It’ll be an interesting process to move through, as I believe that every teacher, whatever their policy, has good reasons,” Navarro said.

Though the math department does not enforce the same late policy in all classes, it emphasizes consistency within courses, with adjustments for different lanes. “Our department philosophy is that an Algebra 1 class with freshmen is going to have a different late policy than a BC Calculus class with juniors and seniors because they are working with a different curriculum and different maturity,” Hawes said.

According to Hawes, late policies for specific courses originate in teacher meetings at the beginning of the school year. “The teachers get together and they say, ‘Okay, let’s talk about the syllabus.’ That’s the first thing,” Hawes said. “And part of that discussion is, are we going to take a penalty for late homework? What kind of late homework?”

While science teachers have a certain amount of independence to determine their own policies, science department IS Laurie Pennington maintains that teachers should be completely transparent when it comes to changes in class policies or curriculum. “If a teacher posted a policy in their course guide [and] then chose to change it, they would need to let me know, let the students know and let the parents know, because course policy changes should be communicated to all those affected by the policies,” Pennington said.

One unique aspect of the science department’s policy is the late pass, which students can use to turn in assignments after the due date. Although not used in all classes, most lower-lane classes in subjects such as biology and chemistry allow students to use these passes. “We’ve been trying as a department to work really hard on flexibility, but we also want to teach responsibility,” Pennington said. “The late pass allows students to make those choices.”

Addressing inconsistencies

According to Pennington, consistency in late-work policies is not seen as a major issue within the science department, as policies are determined on the basis of subject matter and level of instruction. “There isn’t really a lot of [time] to discuss whether we would want a department-consistent late policy,” Pennington said. “I haven’t received any complaints, from students or teachers, about science not having a consistent policy.”

Teachers in the social studies department also have the flexibility to create their own late-work policies. According to Navarro, one teacher’s preference should not take priority over another’s. “Students at Gunn are fiercely independent and traditionally, teachers at Gunn are also pretty independent,” Navarro said. “I guess it’s always just been that everyone’s trusted to come up with their own policy and it hasn’t really been questioned.” Hawes also noted that late policies between departments often vary because of the different nature of assignments. “It’s one thing if [a typical assignment] is an essay or a big project,” Hawes said. “That’s very different than when it’s every day you have a math assignment, and that should be reflected in the policy.”

Navarro reviews all the course guidelines, including late-work and absence policies, at the beginning of the year, and if anything is found out of compliance with the California Education Code, she speaks with the teacher, though she said it has never been necessary in the past. “I haven’t seen anything that seems out of the ordinary or outside of traditional Gunn practices,” Navarro said.

Though teachers are mandated by law to follow the rules laid down in the Ed Code, according to Pennington, they are not required to go through any program detailing these rules. “We didn’t have to take a course that made you learn Ed Code,” Pennington said. “If you, as a teacher, don’t know specifics about the Ed Code, how would you know if you are violating it?” Instead, administration is expected to let faculty know if there are ever noncompliance issues. “There are sometimes changes to Ed Code, and to expect every staff member to keep up with everything is probably not realistic,” Navarro said.

Possibilities for progress

With a push for consistency in all facets of the district, PAUSD and Gunn administration are hoping to create a district-wide and school-wide late-work policy for teachers to follow in the near future. Greene believes that this will be beneficial to students’ success and wellness. “To make it fair, I think all teachers should keep it consistent,” Greene said.

After hearing of the English department’s decision, the social studies department is now also considering a possible change in late-work policy. “We have discussed the potential for a unified policy in our department,” Navarro said. “But we didn’t discuss that until the start of the school year and by then it [was] too late, so we hope that this is something that we will work on over the year.”

According to Principal Dr. Denise Herrmann, changes in written policies or in policy implementations should be brought to the administration’s attention by every department to avoid violation of Ed Code. “Attendance and grades and all of those things are key components of Ed Code,” Herrmann said. “Do I expect a teacher to know all of this? Absolutely not. But do I expect a teacher to check with an administrator? Yes, absolutely.”

McGee said that the district will be creating a committee specifically to look at consistency within and across schools in the district, including consistency in late-work policies. He plans to include student and faculty voices in the committee, which is set to be formed by the next school year. However, he maintained that it would be best for school departments to take initiative themselves. “I think that having the departments develop these [consistent] policies themselves will be much more effective and implemented with more fidelity than anything we could impose at the district level,” McGee said. “I have great faith in our faculty and school administration to do this, but we need to get started.”

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