The new school year brings new policies for the Watertown Public Schools, including families being asked to report student absences with an online form, new rules for tardies at the high school, and actions for middle school students failing math and English Language Arts.
The School Committee heard about changes to the student handbooks at Watertown Public Schools starting this fall at the Aug. 21 meeting.
Superintendent Dede Galdston said that the big change for the procedures when a student is absent is filling out and sending in a Google form online.
“If you have an excused absence, any absence, you have to fill out a form, a Google form, instead of an email or phone call,” Galdston said. “We will steer parents and caregivers toward the Google form. It helps us keep track of who is and who isn’t in school.”
School Committee Chair Kendra Foley asked that the form be easy to find. Galdston said links to the form would be on the front page of the school website, as well as other pages of the website, and the link will be included in every communication sent out by principals.
School Committee member Jessica Middlebrook said she is concerned about all families being able to fill in a Google form, noting that not all families have regular access to computers, and some may face language barriers. She also wondered how quickly forms must be sent in.
“As a parent I know if I have a sick child in the morning I probably won’t have time to sit down and fill out a Google form until later in the day,” Middlebrook said.
Galdston said that the Google forms are translatable, and that there are alternate ways to report an absence. If parents of caregivers do not have a way to fill in a Google form, they can still call the school. When they do, they can let the staff know how they will be reporting absences in the future.
Reasons for excused absences include short term illness (up to three consecutive days), a long term illness with a doctor’s note, a death in a student’s family, court appearances, and religious obligations and holidays, Galdston said. In addition there are absences that are worked out with the families and the principal, such as college visits for a high school student.
Unexcused absences include: cutting, family vacations, work, and absences of four or more consecutive days without a doctor’s note.
“Unexcused absences are something that are important. The goal is to minimize absenteeism as much as possible because being in school is the best way to learn,” Galdston said. “However, we understand there are extenuating circumstances, but try to refrain from unexcused absences.”
If there are unexcused absences, school officials will reach out after there are three days of unexcused absences, either consecutive or combined. After five unexcused absences a letter will be sent home to parents or caregivers. In the past, Galdston said, a letter went home after five absences whether excused or not.
If there are 10 absences, excused and/or unexcused, school officials send another letter and set up a meeting to discuss the situation and set up an attendance plan. Galdston noted that 10 days is equivalent to five percent of the school year, and missing that much school is concerning.
If the number of excused and/or unexcused absences reach 15, school officials will issue a warning for Child Requiring Assistance, which is when they ask the court to help supervise a child. At 20 absences (excused and/or unexcused) further action will be taken including possibly petitioning Juvenile Courts for a Child Requiring Assistance, and when appropriate, report the child to the state Department of Children and Families.
School Committee member Lindsay Mosca wanted to make sure that school officials do not put parents on the defensive when they make calls about a student being absent.
“I think it is a challenging thing when a family has a student that’s struggling to be in school,” Mosca said.
Galdston said the state requires a call after 10 absences, but said that she does not want the calls to be punitive.
High School Policies
Some of the changes to the Watertown High School student handbook include rules around being late for class.
WHS will no longer have after school detentions for a student being tardy, said Principal Joel Giacobozzi.
“Having a 30 minute session has not done a good job of curbing tardiness for one minute of tardiness or 45 minutes of tardiness,” said Giacobozzi, who added, “Putting kids in sessions has not proved effective. Instead we want to engage families.”
Under the new policies, families are notified by email, mail, or phone after a student is tardy three to five times. For six to nine tardies, a 30-minute after school session may be issued, the student will meet with the assistant principal, and will lose open campus privileges. For 10 or more tardies, there will be a parent or guardian meeting with the assistant principal, and after school sessions will have to be served before a student can take part in extracurricular activities such as athletics, music, school trips, and clubs.
The High School also made it official that “skip days” are not allowed by putting it in writing.
“Contrary to popular belief, skip days are not a thing. They are not real, so stop doing it, Giacobozzi said. “We put that in a handbook so there is no question.”
One other handbook addition is the graduation requirement starting with the Class of 2027 that all students must pass world history.
Middle School Changes
The Middle School handbook has changes in multiple areas, including requirements for being promoted to the next grade, rules regarding having the high school next door, and more.
Principal Jennifer Chen Fein said one change will be how the school approaches instances when students fail math or English Language Arts (ELA) courses.
“It is important that to be promoted to next grade students must receive passing grades, D- or better, in math and ELA classes,” Chen Fein said. “Students who do not are expected to attend summer school programming and pass the required coursework.”
If a student does not attend summer school, they will be scheduled for intervention work in that subject during the WIN (What I Need) periods the following school year. Another option is to hold the student back to repeat the grade the next school year, but Chen Fein said that is not the preferred action.
“This is intended to support students and ensure they are ready for the next grade, especially as they are thinking about moving into the ninth grade; rather than penalizing students and holding them back or retain them for reasons we know don’t really add a lot of value while potentially causing a lot of social harm,” Chen Fein said.
For the next three years, Watertown High School will be located just across Bemis Street from the Middle School. The Middle School handbook includes a section addressing student interaction.
The High School will use the bottom floor, or”garden level,” of the Middle School, which they will enter off of Bemis Street. The rest of the school is off limits, and high school students are expected to avoid contact with middle school students during the school day, Chen Fein said.
“High school students are not permitted to enter middle school grounds unless escorted by staff,” she said. “Violation of this rule is considered a suspendable offense.”
The Middle School handbook now includes a Resolution on Affirmation of Support for Staff, Students, and Community Members of Color, Chen Fein said.
Chen Fien added that students will not just be recognized for making honor roll during the middle school graduation ceremony, but also for academic growth.