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State Takes Keys: Bad Grades, No License

October 18, 2009
By IAN HICKS Staff Writer

WHEELING - Parents of Mountain State students who fail to make the grade this year won't have to take away the car keys. The state will do that for them.

Last fall, the West Virginia Legislature amended a 20-year-old law requiring school districts to report students with poor attendance or who withdrew to the Division of Motor Vehicles. The DMV now can revoke a student's license for poor grades, too.

Some counties implemented the policy last year, while others have waited until this school year to begin the process.

Ohio County is one of those districts which just this year will begin reporting students for poor academics. Superintendent George Krelis said Attendance Director Jeffrey Laird works closely with Kim Miller, director of student services, to monitor attendance - and now, grades.

"The privilege of operating a motor vehicle falls directly on the student," said Laird.

Krelis said he's a fan of the policy.

"We will comply with the law," he said. "It's a good thing ... hopefully, it will work."

Krelis noted there is no specific grade point average requirement for pupils to keep their drivers' licenses, but the law states they must make "adequate academic progress." Laird said that means a student must earn five credits per year, three of which must be core classes like reading, math, science and social studies.

Students carrying a full schedule and passing all their courses would earn eight credits in one year. According to Laird, officials considered requiring schools to report any student with a GPA under 2.0, but that was not approved.

Under the existing policy based on attendance, which remains in effect, students who miss 11 consecutive days unexcused, or who incur a total of 15 unexcused absences over the course of the year, can have their license revoked. Laird said he sent 51 letters to the DMV during the 2008-09 school year. He noted exceptions may be made for those students enrolled in a GED program, who have serious medical problems or other "extenuating circumstances."

Laird said a student's license can be revoked for either a semester or a year, depending on how long it takes that student to show sufficient progress.

Krelis believes the attendance policy already has a "dual effect" on students simply getting them into the classroom improves performance, he said, and he hopes directly tying grades to driving privileges will have a positive impact as well.

Brooke County also is implementing the grade policy for the first time this year, according to Superintendent Mary K. DeGarmo. She said that, like with any new procedure, there are some "kinks" to work out. Ultimately, however, she thinks it will be a motivating factor for children and their parents.

"It brings to their attention that this is for real," she said. "They need to come to school and maintain their averages."

DeGarmo said students can request a hearing if they feel their license was revoked in error due to a grade miscalculation. She said under the attendance policy, students have had their licenses reinstated after producing papers proving their absences were medically-related.

Marshall and Wetzel counties each began to comply with the law by the end of the 2008-09 school year. Officials in both districts said students last year lost their licenses due to grades, but couldn't say exactly how many.

Marilyn Dague, attendance director for Marshall County Schools, said there wasn't a dramatic increase in license revocations under the new policy. She said in some instances, the policy challenges kids to do better in school, but punishes others who struggle academically. However, Dague doesn't feel the requirements are overly stringent.

"I think most students can meet that criteria," she said. "If you have a 'D' average, that's passing." Dague noted the policy is much more lenient than that set down by the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission, which requires students maintain a 2.0 average to play sports.

Sue Villers, who handles the program for Wetzel County Schools, said she feels the policy is necessary because there are too many students with poor grades and attendance records. Villers noted in West Virginia, students who commit a Level 4 offense those which would constitute a felony if the student were an adult also have their licenses taken away.

"It makes kids more accountable on their behavior as well as academics," she said. "Driving's a privilege and privileges you kind of have to earn.

"Our goal is to educate," Villers continued. "Anything that improves grades, attendance and behavior is worth it."

While the new policy may not affect all students because some high schoolers are not yet old enough to drive, Villers said it affects enough to make the program effective. She said Wetzel County has 950 secondary students, most of whom will eventually get their learner's permit and driver's license.

As for whether the policy will achieve its ultimate goal of boosting students' grades, Villers said, "I hope so. Too soon to tell yet."

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