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State Education Officials Seek Ways to Reduce School Absentee Rates

Mentoring program in Paterson cited as low-cost, highly effective way to get kids to spend more time in classroom

chronic absenteeism

For all the talk about finding ways to add more time to the school year, one more stubborn challenge may be getting students into class for the number of school days there are now.

One out of every 10 New Jersey public-school students last year was absent for more than 10 percent of the school year – equal to at least 18 days out of the minimum 180 days annually, or at least twice a month, according to the state’s latest data.

That’s 120,000 students, with the median number amounting to 23 days out of school for each of them in both excused and unexcused reasons.

Statewide, the biggest rates are both in the youngest and oldest grades, and across the grades, the absentee numbers are highest among low-income students. More than half of all students chronically absent were low-income students, and a quarter of them were special-education students.

That all amounts to less time of instruction for students who already struggle the most, which contributes to lower achievement levels and less learning, said assistant state education commissioner Bari Erlichson, who made a presentation on the topic to the State Board of Education last week.

And the time lost in the earliest grades may mean the most.

“In those early years, there may be times when a parent feels it is less required to be in school,” Erlichson said yesterday. “The parents may not understand the value of being there every day.”

On the state’s NJASK tests in elementary school, for instance, third-graders who missed 10 or more day achieved median scale scores 13 points lower – on a scale of 100 to 300 points -- than those of children who were not absent that many days. The gap was more than 30 points in math.

The state currently focuses only on high rates of what it calls “chronic absenteeism” in the annual School Performance Reports, setting a target of 6 percent for every school.

But Erlichson has sought to bring attention to the schools and districts that have made it a priority.

“Slowly but surely, schools are creating an environment where every day matters,” she said. ”That’s what we are looking for.”

At the state board meeting, the Paterson public schools were lauded for a program that matches at-risk students -- and those with a history of absences -- with an adult in the building, in an effort to provide a more personal connection.

In Paterson’s School No. 5, a dozen specific staff members -- called “success mentors” – are each assigned to four or five students, checking in with them each day.

Over the course of the last year at the school, the program helped to drastically reduce the number of students who were chronically absent, going from 153 students who were regularly absent in the school with 900 pupils -- to just 36.

“It’s that one-on-one connection that they get,” said Sandra Diodonet, principal of the school. “It’s knowing that there is an adult in the building who is there for them.”

Diodonet said the reasons why students miss school can range from not having a clean uniform to doctor appointments -- or even their own role in the family, when they may have to advocate for parents who may not speak English.

She said the “success mentors” are only one piece of a larger puzzle. The district as a whole has also reorganized its attendance officers in other schools, and stepped up its system for calling home when students are absent.

But Diodonet said she has seen firsthand that the program works -- and at virtually no cost, as the staff members all volunteer their time.

“It doesn’t cost anything but effort and a willingness to help kids want to come to school,” she said.

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