Students, teachers and extended absences at the Haines School

Haines school (Photo: KHNS)

It’s pretty common for residents of rural Alaska to head south for some time in the winter. For a few weeks, a month, or more. In some cases, students become part of that tradition. The question of how to deal with extended school absences came up recently in Haines.

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There are a lot of reasons people leave Haines in the winter – for seasonal jobs, different family situations, and vacations to name a few. When a student is involved, leaving for a long period of time becomes a little more complicated.

Leslie Ross’ fifth grade daughter is one of those students. Ross and her spouse work in different communities and that’s led to Ross’s daughter taking extended absences from school for the last three years. This year she will spend at least two months out of town.

“Before she left we sat down with the teachers and got an estimate of what they’re going to do for the next two months,” Ross said.

Over the years, Ross says the process for how her family deals with her daughter’s absence has changed. Right now, she’s not actually enrolled in the Haines School. But, she’s still learning.

“She’s learning, she’s good, she’s doing home school, it’s just we’re not on a home school program. But yeah, she’s – and you know it’s a different way of learning but when she gets back we’ll sit down with the teachers and make sure that she’s up do date with everything and didn’t fall behind,” Ross said.

Ross said there are also important educational experiences that happen outside of the school building.

“Our reasoning for doing it is because of our family situation,” Ross said. “It’s not to go on vacations. Although, when you’re out of school you do get to experience – she’s done some amazing things like river trips and things like that.”

Patty Brown teaches elementary math and science at the Haines School. She sent a letter to the school board earlier this month titled “Planned Absences: Impeding Success.” In it she talks about the challenges of extended absences for both students and teachers. She spoke about the issue at a recent school board meeting.

“While I certainly value travel, family time and novel experiences as an enrichment to anyone’s life, I think there’s a reason our school year is as long as it is,” Brown said.

In the letter, Brown said lengthy absences impact school climate, teacher workload, and overall learning. She said she’s talked to other teachers who feel some of the same pressures that she’s addressed.

“It just feels a little bit like we’re backsliding when some of those kids miss weeks and weeks,” Brown said. “I don’t mean even like one week, but weeks and in more than one year – multiple years in a row.”

High school science teacher Mark Fontenot spoke up at the meeting too. He agreed that it’s not an easy situation, but something he’s learned to deal with.

“I think in a nutshell it’s just part of the deal living where we do,” Fontenot says. “It’s been a frustration for me since I started here. When anyone asks me what the hardest part of teaching in Haines is, it’s the number of days missed, it’s the number of absences.”

Fontenot spoke mostly from the perspective of a teacher, but did say his own child takes extended absences. He said while he feels educational progress can be affected by long absences, he wouldn’t want to see any hard policy implemented.

“The results might be really catastrophic,” Fontenot said. “I think we could lose more students to home school. I think it could drive parents to choose home school or un-school options or to move elsewhere.”

Brown didn’t suggest implementing a significant policy change that would limit absences. Her letter focuses on ways to encourage better attendance.

When Ross’ daughter gets back to town, she’ll re-enroll. Ross says keeping her daughter in school in Haines is important. So, despite challenges want to try to make it work.

“Both the principal and vice principal and the teachers have been really good working with us,” say Ross. “It would be really good to, especially with our enrollment dropping in the school, try to figure out how we can accommodate these alternative families and alternative ways of enrolling in school.”

Accommodating families may be especially important for the school district now. Enrollment is the lowest it’s been since the 1950s.

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