Learning v. Coming to School

This article on whether students at a prestigious Montgomery County public high school need to attend classes in order to pass the course and graduate caught my eye, because it took me back to one of my very early jobs with the Rochester City School district when Jerry and I first moved to that city in 1971. I was a “mental health technician” for the Rochester City School District, charged with testing special ed students but also with helping the school psychologist and social worker with the travails of the large and diverse study body at urban Franklin High School.

My qualifications? A philosophy B.A. from the College of St. Elizabeth, plus two years in the Peace Corps. I had nary a special ed or psychology course to my name. I applied for the publicly posted job, met with the head of Student Services, and he thought I’d be great.

The early 1970’s were a troubled time, with many riots at the school which brought the Rochester Police Department crashing through the front doors in force, batons raised, to try and get students rampaging up and down the halls back in their classrooms without anyone being hurt.

With such large and noisy problems to solve, nobody much noticed one agoraphobic white kid smart enough to know exactly when he needed to show up — to get the syllabus, books, and class assignments, and to sit for tests — in order to pass the course. Other than those specific points, he never came to school. Finally, the attendance officer noticed the boy’s shockingly bad attendance record, and I was in on the meeting about what to do.

The kid was clearly very bright. He was doing very well in his subjects.  He just wasn’t coming to class except when he absolutely had to because Franklin was a scary place under the best conditions and this kid had trouble leaving home for anything. During the meeting he didn’t try to conceal his non-attendance, or make up stories about why he wasn’t in school. He simply said leaving home was hard for him, and he learned better by himself, alone with his books and study assignments. This was the early 1970’s, before things like home schooling, or on line education were options. If you were in high school, you were supposed to show up.  This boy unintentionally offended everyone’s sensibilities by passing with flying colors despite hardly ever darkening the door of the building.

I remember how shocked everyone was when the attendance information was finally laid out, and it was clear how little school this kid was attending. That said, nobody was clear on what to do. He was performing academically beyond grade level, and carefully managing his attendance within the limits of his agoraphobia.

If I recall correctly, the outcome of the meeting was to send me for a home visit to talk with the kid and his family about whether his attendance might be improved. Other than that, there was a tacit agreement to leave the kid alone, and focus on the school’s larger problems.

My guess is that this kid learned enough in high school to do just fine and move on to the next stage of his life. And the system, for once, did the sensible thing.


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