Critics See Wasted Time in Punishment of Tardy Students
Patricia Cavala’s school day had gotten off to a sluggish start.
The 17-year-old said she had arrived just three minutes late at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles after missing the bus one morning. She was sent to the “tardy room” for the rest of the period, and instructed to write repeatedly: “I will not be late to school.... “
Cavala was annoyed. Otherwise a good student who said she rarely misses class, she was scheduled to give a presentation on American heroes during first period history. So, she sneaked out of the tardy room and quietly slipped into her class for her project.
The tardy punishment is “a waste of time,” Cavala said. “You’re not learning anything. It’s like a gift. You’re in the tardy room, so we’ll let you sleep or talk to your friends.”
Complaints like hers are not uncommon from students, parents and teachers. As a result, the tardy room may soon be marked absent.
Roosevelt is reevaluating the long-standing tradition of herding late students into a holding room for the remainder of the class period. Other schools have dropped the practice altogether, saying such policies allow students to fritter away instructional time in an era when schools are held accountable for pupils’ performance and low test scores. The practice, its critics add, rewards bad behavior by allowing students to avoid classes or tests.
“Having kids sequestered and removed from a class, and put in a place where they’re not receiving an education, is entirely wrong,” said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Assn., a teachers union. She said other measures should be used, such as giving students detention during lunch or after school.
Tardy rooms were noted as poor practice in state audit reports last year on five low-performing Los Angeles Unified high schools targeted for reforms: Roosevelt, Jefferson, Locke, Wilson and Fremont. Since then, Fremont and Wilson have closed their tardy rooms.
Joining that trend over the last few years were Colton and Fontana high schools in San Bernardino County, Emery High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, Raymond Cree Middle School in Palm Springs, and other schools in Illinois and Texas.
“With the new state accountability system and state standards, I want them in class. If they’re tardy, they have to make up that time outside of class, on their own time,” said Clarence Nolan, Raymond Cree principal.
Nolan ended the 5-year policy two years ago. Now staff members are required to call parents or assign after-school detention for late students.
An assistant principal at Lanphier High in Springfield, Ill., said budget cuts had forced the tardy room there to close this year, but she acknowledged that the change had been welcomed by some parents and students. When the tardy room was instituted two years ago, students organized a petition against it, and one student’s father wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper stating that: “If he is five minutes late and will spend the day [at school] only to earn a zero, I will just keep him home for the day to do his homework.... I want him to go to college, but if he thinks high school is jail, I don’t see college happening.”
Around the country, tardy rooms also go by other names, including “sweep rooms,” “responsibility rooms” and “individualized supervised study rooms.” Guidelines vary, but usually a staff member keeps an eye on students for the class period. Sometimes students are required to write essays, catch up on homework or copy sentences like “I will not be tardy” over and over.
Many of Los Angeles Unified School District’s 52 high schools have tardy rooms, including Washington Preparatory, Banning, Bell, Carson, Dorsey, Garfield, Huntington Park, Marshall, John Francis Polytechnic and Kennedy.
But, in place of the tardy room this year, Wilson hired an attendance officer to visit the homes of chronically late or truant students; teachers and administrators now stand in doorways and hallways to make sure students get to class on time. Fremont has implemented a tardy policy that includes after-school detention, parent conferences and suspension for multiple offenders.
Other audited schools in Los Angeles say they are revising their attendance procedures or reducing the number of students sent to the tardy room.
“I don’t believe in them,” said Richard Alonzo, superintendent for local subdistrict F, which oversees some East Los Angeles schools, including Wilson. “I don’t believe you punish students who are late to class by taking them out of class.” He said the closing of the tardy room at Wilson would have happened eventually, even without the state audit.
Ron Kendrick, a representative of United Teachers Los Angeles and an English teacher at Roosevelt, said he would rather have students in class, even if they are late, because otherwise they miss assignments and lessons, and slow down the rest of the class.
“Why are the students in there? They just sit there and twiddle their thumbs,” Kendrick said. “With our students’ low scores and low achievement, we need to have them doing something more productive.”
Geri Herrera, director of school services for L.A. Unified’s local district H, which oversees Roosevelt and a handful of other East Los Angeles schools, said the tardy room is being reviewed.
“There may be no need for it in the future, but it is still up for discussion,” she said. “This is the kind of practice we would like to see eliminated eventually, because we want instruction to be the first priority.”
There are better ways to handle the problem, said Kevon Wells, principal of the 3,400-student Alvin High School, southeast of Houston. Wells, who became principal this year, immediately closed the tardy room.
“Tardy rooms were used by some as a means of getting out of a class,” he said.
Still, some administrators support corralling late students into tardy rooms as a way to manage excessive tardiness.
Russ Thompson, principal of Leuzinger High in Lawndale, in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, said tardiness has decreased substantially in the last three years, since the school began sending late students into the “guidance room” for the rest of the class period and issuing a suspension after five offenses.
“It’s not our goal to keep students out of class,” Thompson said. “Our first goal is to get them to be on time, and really get as much learning out of class as they can.”
Richard Bin, assistant principal at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, which has had a tardy room for three years, said: “When there is a tardy room, you see kids running to class. When there is no tardy room, you see students slowly taking their time. The biggest complaint we get is when students say, ‘Why, if I am a few minutes late, do I have to miss a whole hour of class?’ My answer to that is it’s not fair for all students who are in class on time to have their instruction interrupted.”
At Jefferson High School near downtown, staff member Jesus Aguayo supervises the tardy room on most school days. Students must sit in every other chair. They are not supposed to talk or sleep and must do some work.
But such requirements are rarely enforced, Aguayo conceded. He said he is usually too busy marking down which students missed their classes and filling out passes for them to prove they were in the tardy room.
On a recent morning, 40 students lounged in the Jefferson cafeteria, which doubles as a tardy room.
Three girls braided bracelets out of pink plastic strings. Clusters of students chatted and giggled in the back of the room. Two students slept with their heads resting on a lunch table, while other girls shared a bag of Cheetos.
Assistant Principal Randall Klarin entered the cafeteria, marching between lunch tables. He hushed the crowd, separated students from their friends and announced to the carefree tardy group: “This is not a party.” A girl rolled her eyes. The crowd quieted down, and the bell rang a few minutes later.
Then five teenage boys, who simply didn’t feel like going to class, waited for admittance to the tardy room. “Fifty percent are repeat offenders,” said Aguayo.
One boy plopped down and licked a green Popsicle. Another put his head down and went to sleep.