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How Schools Punish Kids Who Like to Travel

Photograph by Twenty20

Travel is one of the greatest gifts that we can give our children. But what if there is someone, or better put, something that could put an unexpected roadblock in your plans. Something that could even punish you for traveling with your kids?

It seems inconceivable, but parents across the U.S. and in Europe are facing just that.

Their children's schools think they know better than the parents and have even taken drastic measures to keep parents from taking them kids out of class for travel—no matter how educational the trip.

To understand what is going on, you need to look at what constitutes an absence—excused and unexcused—and how schools and parents can navigate the tricky waters of truancy.

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According to the Fontana Unified School District in Fontana, Calif., an excused absence includes the following:

1. Personal illness.

2. Quarantine under the direction of a health officer.

3. Personal medical, dental, optometric or chiropractic appointment.

4. Funeral services for a member of the immediate family (limited to one day in the state, and three days out of state).

5. Student serving on jury duty.

6. Exclusion for illness or medical appointment of a child of whom the pupil is the custodial parent.

7. Personal court appearance (requires verification).

8. Prior Principal approval for employment conference.

9. Employment in the Entertainment Industry for a maximum of up to five absences per school year.

10. Observance of a religious holiday or ceremony (recommend three (3) days advance notice to school).

11. Religious retreat (limited to four hours per semester).

12. Prior Principal approval for reasons, which may not be included elsewhere, but are pursuant to uniform standards established by the governing board.

13. For the purpose of serving as a member of a precinct board for an election pursuant to Section 12302 of the Elections Code.

Fontana goes on to explain that unexcused absences include the following:

1. Going to work with parent or other family member.

2. Going to the beach, lake, river, mountains or desert.

3. Going to a concert.

4. Getting ready for a date.

5. Babysitting, taking care of other family members.

6. Under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

7. Joyriding or partying.

8. Personal problems.

9. Repairing car or household items.

10. Waiting for service or repair people to arrive.

11. Shopping.

12. Camping.

13. Attending a sporting event.

14. Any other reason not included in "Acceptable Reason for Excused Student Absences."

15. Bus not available/missing bus.

16. Participating in a student demonstration off campus.

The United Kingdom has been a loud advocate against parents taking children out of schools, going as far as fining parents a significant amount of money for taking their children out to go on holiday. Even if parents want to leave a day before a school break starts, they could be fined on average £172. The Guardian reported on these punishments this summer.

In contrast, Canadian blogger and National Geographic Travelers of the Year Heather Greenwood Davis and her husband took their kids out of school for an entire year and were applauded by their sons' schools. Stewart and Natasha Sutherland in the U.K., on the other hand, were ordered to pay £1,000 in costs and fines in 2013 for pulling their children out of school for a week, according the the BBC.

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Schools in the U.S. are strapped for cash. Every seat that is filled brings in money for the school. Schools are penalized when kids are sick, when you pull your children out a day or two early to get a jump on spring break and if you have to attend a funeral. Even if your teacher is on board with your travel plans, the school district may not be since they will lose out on cash. Is this fair? No, not really, but you can see where the schools are coming from. Many schools across the country are functioning on insufficient budgets. They need every dollar they can get.

As hard is it is to believe in this day and age, parents in the U.S. are being punished, yelled at and berated for trying to give their children a unique and educational experience.

Karen Presley Dawkins, author of Family Travels on a Budget, has found that "changes in school funding affect how schools respond. If kids miss a certain number of days, the district loses funding for that pupil." They can't choose between travel and truancy/skipping because teachers are paid to teach. Also, larger class sizes and test scores affect the schools and teacher bonuses as well. With 25+ in classes, it's difficult for teachers to work individually with kids to catch them up.

I understand why the schools are cracking down. They're not anti-travel, but they are burdened with testing accountability. And they can get in trouble for favoritism too. It's a messy world.

Alternately, some teachers are trying to do whatever they can to help you travel with your kids.

Kristine De Lorimier Dworkin was told by a teacher that "if I was determined to take them out that I should call the kids in sick so the school district would still get the money." The fact that a teacher even has to suggest this shows where the education system is at right now. It's not looking at the welfare of the student or the benefits of travel—school districts are simply looking at the dollar signs and showing kids that it is OK to lie to a school to get time off.

Even with the extra work and burden it puts on teachers, some are still willing to help. Dworkin goes on to explain after a talk with a 3rd-grade teacher at her school," [She] told me that she gets it—families do get once in a lifetime opportunities to travel somewhere and, when that occurs, she's happy to put together an independent study program for a student. But then that puts an extra burden on the teacher to review and correct everything—and that's if the child even turns it in," Dworkin said. "This teacher had 11 kids out on independent study (throughout the year, not at one time), that's almost half the class! At least five kids never turned in all of the work. When I asked her why she passed them, she said if she had failed that many then the school ranking drops and her own performance review is affected."

Teacher Kate Clarke has a great attitude towards travel. She loves to travel herself and has some great assignments that are practical and even helpful while her students are on the road.

"Rather than send school work, I ask them to write a journal of their trip (because that's purposeful and authentic), read as many signs and brochures as possible and work out money and distances etc. in conversations while they're away," Clarke said.

I've chatted with my son's kindergarten teacher, and she is excited to see where my son travels to this year. She mainly has parents help their child keep a journal of their trip to share with the class. I'm lucky to be in a very proactive school with very active parents. Many of the parents in my son's class would still want to do the homework (the one sheet we get per week to do with our kids), and I know I would still have him work on his writing—but this isn't required.

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As we start our school journey, I want my son to see that there are consequences to being out of school and there will still be homework to do no matter his age.

As hard is it is to believe in this day and age, parents in the U.S. are being punished, yelled at and berated for trying to give their children a unique and educational experience. I'm not even talking about parents pulling their kids out of school to take advantage of low-season rates at Disney World. These are parents trying to show their children the magic of Europe, the architecture of Asia, the colonial sights across the U.S. and creatures that can be found in Central and South America.

The issue doesn't hit the papers as often as it probably should, but plenty of parents have stories to tell.

Mary Penafiel Solio, owner of the popular blog, The World is a Book, has received multiple truancy letters. She receives them each year if her children miss more than four days of school in the Vista School District near San Deigo.

"After 6 absences, you get to meet with the school attendance review board," Solio says.

Eileen Gunn in New York City has found she can get away with the school year travel up until a certain age.

They finally agreed that if she missed NO school the next year, they would restore the credit. This could have meant she wouldn't graduate. She's an A student in honors Spanish who got to Cuba before any changes. She translated for the artists and even visited Che Guevara'a mausoleum—but according to one of the teachers on the panel, 'There are experiences in the classroom that can't be replicated.'"

"In NYC, I've been told you can get away with it until 4th grade. Then attendance counts on your middle school applications (we don't have zoned middle schools, and some are very competitive), so you really can't miss school that year."

This is not the first time I've heard this.

Also, the higher up you go academically, the harder it can be to take your children out of school simply because they don't want to miss anything. What about sports practices and AP classes—missing even just one can cause your child to fall behind if you aren't working alongside your child's teacher.

Jody Halstead had no problems with her school, but the state threatened more than just a fine when she took her daughters out of school for more than 10 days in one year. The state threatened to take her children away from her.

"10 days is the max number of unexcused absences in Iowa—and we exceeded that two years running. The letters got more threatening with the final ones stating that my child could be 'removed from your home and placed in a care facility while your family is investigated.' Oh, and we would be paying all the bills for care, food, etc."

Eventually, Halstead opted to homeschool her daughters, not wanting to deal with any more harassment from the state.

Tiffany Turner Fite in Washington State has been threatened by the school district.

"We were penalized and threatened with a truancy visit for taking our (then) 4th- and 5th-grade boys out of school for six days. This notice came after us sending in plenty of notice and meeting with each teacher to get assignments ahead of time. We tacked the six days on to a weeklong February break they already had. The funniest thing is that the nasty gram said 'We understand families enjoy vacation, but please take these vacations during the scheduled times only. It's critical your child be in school, as nothing outside of school can replicate the classroom experience.' Yeah, we sure regret standing on the walls of Conwy Castle in Wales because of what they missed in class. Right."

Michele Chan-Thomson brought up a very good point on a Facebook discussion I recently had with travel friends to dig into this issue even more.

"I think that it's interesting that many schools are so rigid about being absent for family initiated travel, yet school sports absences or even a two-week trip to France with the French Club during the school year are perfectly fine. Last year, my high school freshman was absent for 40 percent of his science classes during cross country season, and it was not frowned upon at all."

Amy Whitley's middle schooler, however, got a brutal wake-up call from his physical education teacher in Oregon, when he missed school to go on a trip with his family.

"The last time we took our middle schooler out, we got cooperation from every teacher except the P.E. teacher. He made my son's life miserable with 'make up work' that involved pedaling a stationary bike during his lunch hour for days, despite the fact that our trip away included daily mountain biking, hiking and kayaking."

Kim Marie Evans, a resident of Connecticut, probably got the harshest backlash of all after taking her oldest daughter to Cuba.

"[My daughter] lost credit in her high school classes for our trip to Cuba. I had to appear before a board to contest this—and lost. They finally agreed that if she missed NO school the next year, they would restore the credit. This could have meant she wouldn't graduate. She's an A student in honors Spanish who got to Cuba before any changes. She translated for the artists and even visited Che Guevara'a mausoleum—but according to one of the teachers on the panel, 'There are experiences in the classroom that can't be replicated.'"

Apparently those teachers don't really get that there are experiences OUTSIDE of the classroom that can never be found in a school either.

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While we can all appreciate the policies, we as parents who crave travel also need to find a way to work with our school districts. Schools are penalized if kids aren't in seats. Most truancy issues aren't due to parents wanting to travel with their kids, but kids skipping class without some parents even knowing it is happening. While this type of absence definitely needs to be monitored, a parent-led absence to travel, which some say is the best education of all, really needs to be written separately into school district policy.

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