Law changes kindergarten attendance

Published 5:00 am Monday, August 11, 2003

New attendance laws are now in place for kindergarten studentsin Mississippi, according to school officials.

The legislature this year added kindergarten to the MississippiCompulsory School Attendance Law of 1972, according to Dr. SamBounds, superintendent of the Brookhaven Public School District.The change took effect July 1.

Bounds, a strong proponent of early childhood education, saidthe new law elevates kindergarten attendance to much the same levelas the higher grades.

Other educators are also pleased with the change.

According to Danita Hobbs, principal at Mamie Martin ElementarySchool, the new law recognizes the importance kindergarten plays ina child’s development. Over the years, kindergarten classes havebeen “enhanced” with much stronger curriculums, she said.

“They’re being taught in kindergarten now what they used to betaught in first grade,” she said. “It’s not just playtime anymore.It’s a strong instructional period. This makes it even moreimportant that the kids are here.”

Until now, Hobbs said, parents would enroll and withdraw theirkindergarten children without any penalties, but the new lawchanges that. Parents will be allowed to withdraw their childrenone time with no penalties. If that child is re-enrolled, they arebound to complete the year.

“Once that child has been enrolled a second time, there is nopulling them out,” said Jeff Richardson, a Mississippi Departmentof Education school attendance officer assigned to this area.

Bounds said the new law is a significant first step, but hewould like to see it taken further.

“I congratulate the legislature for what they did, I just don’tthink they went quite far enough,” he said. “The earlier we canteach the children, the better off they’ll be. It’s not trulyfully-mandatory kindergarten yet.”

The next step, Bounds said, is to make kindergarten fullymandatory by removing the voluntary enrollment.

By allowing voluntary enrollment and the one-time unenrollmentwith no penalties, “you still lose the flow and continuity ofeducation that is so important as the child develops,” he said.

Hobbs agreed.

“The most important thing is that they attend when they enroll,”she said. “Kindergarten is of vital importance to the student’ssuccess in future years.”

Officials also noted that the new law can have a severe impacton parents who allow their kindergarten child to miss school toooften.

“The Mississippi compulsory school law is one of the simplestlaws the Mississippi legislature has on record,” said Bobby Bell, aschool attendance officer with the Brookhaven Police Department.”The reason I use the word simple is because it’s to the point. Itstates every parent or guardian who has a child between the ages of6 and 17 must have that child enrolled in school, and that childmust attend school.”

Students from kindergarten to 12th grade can miss up to fiveunexcused days before action is taken. After the fifth unexcusedabsence, the parent and student are consulted by a schoolattendance officer and monitored for further absences.

Both parent and student can face legal penalties after thetwelfth unexcused absence.

More than 1,000 students in the Lincoln County and BrookhavenPublic School Districts alone exceeded the five unexcused absenceslast year, said Richardson.

“A lot of parents think that the school attendance officers areout there to harass them. We’re there to help,” Richardson said.”Statistics show that increased absences lead to poor schoolperformances and an increased dropout rate, which hurts theirfuture. We don’t want that to happen.”

In most violations of the attendance law, charges can be filedagainst parent and child. The child would be charged with truancyand the parent or guardian with educational neglect.

However, young children are routinely exempted from thepenalties “because they can hardly be accountable for gettingthemselves to school,” Richardson said. “With a child this age, ifthey don’t come to school, you can look at the parents. There arecertain stipulations we can assess on the parent to make sure theycomply.”

The penalties for more than 12 absences are pretty strong, Bellsaid.

Possible sentences, which can include one or all of thefollowing, include a fine of up $1,000, one year in jail, theparent can be ordered to attend school with the child, and theparent can be ordered to do community service.