By Monique Harrison
Although Tupelo and Lee County schools reopened more than three weeks ago, Tuesday marked the beginning of a new school year for many area students.
"This is something we see basically every year," said Lawhon Elementary Principal Joan Dozier. "A lot of students just don't get registered until after Labor Day."
There are a variety of reasons why students have missed the past three and a half weeks of class.
Many of the newly registered students are new to the area or to the district in which they are registering.
"The truth is, a lot of working people don't have the luxury of taking a day off of work so they can move," said Lee County Schools Superintendent Lynn Lindsey. "Labor Day weekend gives people three days to get themselves moved. Then, they worry about getting their children enrolled in school. It's not convenient, but that's the way it works."
Lee County Schools officials registered 32 new students the Tuesday after Labor Day, while Tupelo registered 27.
Tupelo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Vinson said he'd expected more late students.
"This is more than half of what I'd anticipated," Vinson said. "These numbers are surprisingly low."
Why students start late
School officials said there are a number of reasons students miss the first two weeks of school.
"A lot of these students have been out of town on vacation with their parents," Vinson said. "They've been off visiting grandparents. There was a time when school didn't start until after Labor Day. Some people ... hold to that now."
Pontotoc City Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Harrison said tradition may be to blame for some late-starters.
"There is a sense among some people that summer's not over until after Labor Day," said Harrison, whose district registered an additional 12 students on the Tuesday after Labor Day. "I imagine this problem has a lot to do with tradition. A lot of schools outside of this area still start after Labor Day."
In Pontotoc City Schools, all of the new students registered Tuesday were elementary students.
"That's a change for us," Harrison said. "Usually, junior high and senior high students start late because they are off somewhere else during the summer or have jobs they want to remain at until the last possible minute."
In other cases, the reasons behind late registration are tougher to identify.
"Some of these children haven't been to school anywhere and they are just now showing up," said Verona School counselor Marianne Christian, who registered 12 new students last week. "In some cases, we might never know why they showed up late."
Handling new students
Schools handle new students differently.
Most students who register late can expect to start their first day off in the office, filling out paperwork required for registration.
After registering, the counselor, principal or a fellow student normally gives the child a brief tour of the school.
In most cases, counselors also talk to the parents of children, working to find out why they are registering late.
Late enrollees cause a number of problems for area schools.
"There are a lot of things we have to deal with because of late students," Christian said. "We have a hard time determining how many teachers we need to hire before school starts. And the biggest problem, simply put, is that these students have missed weeks of school. They are behind and are going to have to catch up. Teachers have to adjust to that."
Late-starters cause problems
Enrolling late can be embarrassing for some youngsters, Saltillo Elementary fifth-grade teacher Lindy Hopkins said.
"I feel so sorry for them when they come in for the first time, because they have 20-something pairs of eyes staring at them," said Hopkins, who received two new students the day after Labor Day. "When they come in for the first time, I try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. It can be hard, though, because we've been in school for almost a month. We're doing a lot of reviewing, but it's still not something they need to miss."
Several new students said their late starts had caused problems.
"I wish I'd been in school when it started," said 10-year-old Lawhon Elementary third-grader Krys Wells, who moved from a residence in the Lee County School District two weeks ago and started school Tuesday. "I've learned a lot of things I didn't know. I like my teachers and I like the kids in my class, so school's good."
Late-starters also can cause their school districts to suffer financially.
The State Department of Education requires districts to submit their Average Daily Attendance figures through Sept. 30.
Those numbers determine the amount of money districts receive for some items funded by Minimum Program, which pays for teachers for required courses, textbooks and other items that are crucial to the successful operation of a district.
If additional students come into a district but aren't counted into the Minimum Program equation, that money must come from local funds.
What the law says
The Mississippi Compulsory School Attendance Law says any child between the ages of 6 and 16 is required to attend school or to be enrolled in a home school program.
The law allows students to miss school because of illness, the death of an immediate family member, a medical or dental appointment, a court appearance or to observe a religious holiday.
Students are also permitted to miss school for a valid educational opportunity, such as a family vacation. Permission to miss school for this reason must be preapproved.
If school-age children are not enrolled in school within 30 calendar days of the start of a new school year, their parents or guardians may be charged with contributing to the neglect of a minor. The law is rarely enforced, however, according to Lee County Justice Court Judge John Hoyt Sheffield.
"I've never seen a case like that come through this court," said Sheffield, who has served in the position for five years.
"Basically, Mississippi law gives parents a few weeks to play with before they really have to get their children enrolled in school," said Valerie Troiani, coordinator of information for the State Department of Education's Office of Accreditation.
Most Northeast Mississippi school districts don't consider a child who is registering for the first time to have been absent during the first few weeks of school.
"In most cases, I think the child is considered a new student," Troiani said.
School districts typically require students who have more than 20 absences a year to repeat the grade in which they are enrolled. Exceptions are made for students who are seriously ill or face other extenuating circumstances.