A Year For The Books- Until The Last Week Many Schools Have Been Empty.

Posted: June 30, 1994

It's probably anticlimactic, particularly to the tens of thousands of Philadelphia students who haven't set foot in class this week, but today is the last day of school.

A topsy-turvy school year - one that saw 12 days canceled by ice and snow, then saw two holidays reclaimed, the high school day stretched by 14 minutes and four days added to the end of the year to make up for the lost time - will sputter to a halt at noon today.

If the past week is any indication, not too many students will be there to acknowledge it.

Ever since final exams ended and grades were recorded last Wednesday, public school attendance has plummeted, while the crowds at shopping malls, swimming holes, video arcades and other youthful hangouts have grown.

At some high schools, entire student bodies have disappeared, but officials don't seem too concerned; most, in fact, would rather not talk about it at all. Two principals refused this week to allow pictures to be taken at their nearly empty schools.

"Once the grades go in, people are out of here," said one of two seniors who, though they finished school last week, dropped by Spring Garden's Benjamin Franklin High School on Tuesday to visit friends in other grades. ''Nobody's here. Nobody's got the patience anymore. The teachers are exhausted. It's hot. And you're not getting any work, anyway. Why bother?"

The reason, in a word, is money.

State law requires school districts to provide 990 hours of instruction, or at least 180 days, to high school students, and falling short of that minimum can lead to the loss of as much as $500,000 a day in state aid.

At three high schools visited this week - as was the case when schools re- opened for a day in the middle of spring break - there was little resembling instruction going on. Teachers cleaned out their desks, nonteaching assistants and security guards patrolled student-less hallways, students slept, played cards and watched television at their desks.

At elementary and middle schools, attendance was better, and students were kept occupied with special programs, guest speakers, plays, festivals and graduation ceremonies.

School district officials insist that "meaningful instruction" is continuing in schools this week, and they say the lag time between final exams and the last day of school is no longer this year than it normally is. Similar declines in attendance occur after final exams every year, they say.

According to a "nonscientific sampling" of schools by the district yesterday, high school attendance on Monday and Tuesday ranged from 30 to 53 percent, junior high attendance ranged from 42 to 80 percent and elementary attendance ranged from 69 to 90 percent - all lower rates than usual.

Pam Weddington, a spokeswoman for the district, said districtwide attendance figures for the week were not available because of a computer malfunction.

Even if they were, the numbers wouldn't tell the whole story.

For that, sit outside a high school like Benjamin Franklin about the time the school day ends and wait for students to come out.

And wait.

On Tuesday, not a single student walked out the front door between 2 and 3 p.m. (School ends at 2:17.) Of those students who did show up in the morning, most had sneaked out of school by lunch time, according to teachers and staff members who were leaving school that afternoon with their coffee mugs, potted plants and other personal belongings.

One teacher said she had seven students in class all day.

At other high schools in the city, the school year was also creeping toward a not-so-grand finale.

"Ever since finals, there's been no work," said ninth grader Christina Glowacki. "You just sit in class and look stupid." On Monday, Glowacki, 15, sat across the street from Kensington High School with two friends, all of whom said they walked out of the school when teachers asked them to help clean up their classroom.

Only a few dozen students were in the school, she said, most of whom were playing cards or watching television.

"First period was boring," said Martha Quinones, 16, a freshman at Kensington. "Second period was boring. I was the only person in class. The teacher went about his business and I went about mine. There's only about 20 students in the whole school. It seems stupid to me, but I'll do anything not to be home."

At Lincoln High School, Nicole D'Annunzio, after sitting idly with two other students in her first-period class, left the building to pass the hours at a school playground.

"My mom told me to go to school," said D'Annunzio, a 14-year-old ninth grader. "She didn't tell me to go to class."

"We finished finals (last) Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday hardly anybody came in. On Friday I went to all my classes and I was the only one there. I felt like such a dork. Today, there's only about 60 kids and hardly any teachers. I know half my friends went to the mall."

The student parking lot at Lincoln, normally full, had 18 cars in it, and inside, most students were watching movies. Some teachers handed out crossword puzzles, said Roberta Taylor, 14, a ninth grader who stood on a swing at the playground Monday after walking out of school in the morning.

In the distance, the school bell rang. "What is it," Taylor asked a friend, "like, eighth period now?"

According to the school district, 35 percent of Lincoln's students showed up Monday, and 30 percent showed up Tuesday.

Attendance is likely to pick up a bit districtwide today, when report cards are handed out at most schools.

State law, while mandating minimum instructional time, also requires that the school year not extend past June 30. This year, due to the numerous closings, the legislature voted to allow schools to stay open on Saturdays, extend their school day, and waive the 180-day rule for graduating seniors.

Normally, school would have ended Friday, June 24, in Philadelphia's public schools. But 1993-94 was not a normal school year. Schools closed nine days in January because of the weather. To make up for those days, the school board in February added three days to the school calendar - Presidents Day, June 27 and June 28.

Schools were forced to close again on Feb. 9 and 11, and later that month the school board added two more days, stretching the school year to June 30. In March, after weather closed schools another day, the board amended the calendar again, requiring students to report to class on March 29, an unpopular decision that required students to report to school in the middle of spring break.

School attendance on that day - with some students on planned vacations with their parents and others skipping school - dropped as low as 20 percent in some high schools.

Teacher absences, high that day, ran about average this week, Weddington said, with 94 percent of the teachers reporting for class Monday and Tuesday.

Public schools ended up logging 181 days, one more than the law requires, according to system spokesman William C. Thompson, and he said they were making good on the school board's promise to "make the time meaningful and useful," he said.

"The way we look at it, school is still officially in session," said Janet C. Samuels, principal of McCall Elementary School in Society Hill. "A storyteller just walked in, and she's going to be sharing with different classrooms. We're having a play tomorrow. There are still activities we're continuing to do. Some kids are gone because their parents made vacation plans prior to the extension of the school year, but we try to keep things as they would normally be."

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