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Fine Print: ‘Chronically Absent’ Students – and How to Deal with Problem

Study finds one in four districts in 2013-14 had a high number of students missing school at least 10 percent of the year

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What it is: Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a Newark-based organization, this week released its first report on absenteeism in New Jersey public schools. Titled “Showing Up Matters: The State of Chronic Absenteeism in New Jersey,” the report listed 177 districts that in 2013-14 saw at least 10 percent of their students miss at least 10 percent of the academic year – or 18 days -- with excused or unexcused absences. The report also described some low-cost “best practices” for reducing absenteeism, starting with creating a culture in which every school day matters.

What it means: It is hard to argue against the notion that being in school matters, and more attention and research are focusing on attendance and the direct impact it has on learning.

One national study found half of chronically absent kindergarteners become chronically absent first-graders who showed lower gains in reading and math.

The state has been paying attention to the problem, too, calling out individual schools with absentee rates exceeding just 6 percent in its annual performance reports.

ACNJ is a notable voice in New Jersey for its work on child welfare issues, including its annual “Kids Count” reports, so its attention to school attendance only increases pressure on the state to address the issue.

Worst problems: The highest absentee numbers are in kindergarten and 12th grades, the report found. The numbers are disproportionately high for minority students and low-income students -- for instance, black students make up 16 percent of all students, but they account for 24 percent of those who ar e chronically absent.

Rich kids, too: It’s not just poor districts. The report’s county-by-county list of districts with high absentee rates includes a few of New Jersey’s toniest, include Princeton and Alpine.

Remedies: The report offers some ideas for schools to improve their attendance rates.

Among the suggestions: Alert families immediately when students are falling behind in attendance, and reinforce the message often -- not just at “Back to School Night” -- that being in school is critical.

The report also described initiatives in Paterson and Woodbine schools, where teams of teachers and staff closely monitored students who were falling behind and checked up on them and their families., bringing down absentee numbers significantly.

Quote: “Schools need to be intentional about attendance,” said Cynthia Rice of ACNJ. “There needs to be a mind change to when and how you look at the data…. The message needs to be given early and often and not just one night a year.”

Newark’s experience: The state’s largest district – and maybe its highest-profile one -- made a big push to boost attendance under former superintendent Cami Anderson, starting with a public campaign in 2013.

But data has been sketchy since then, including one year in which the Newark district reported a suspicious 100 percent attendance rate in a host of schools. At the same time, Anderson had reduced the number of truancy officers

ACNJ’s response: The organization acknowledged questions about Newark’s campaign and said it was doing its own separate study of the district. In its county listings, it listed Newark’s 2013-14 data as “unavailable.”

Data in, data out: The report uses data from the state Department of Education’s annual compilation of attendance figures. As with any data, there are plenty of questions about how it was collected and how accurate it is.

For instance, regarding the finding that the highest absentee rate is in 12th grade, it was unclear if the study considered the fact that internships and other outside learning is now common for many in high school’s final year.

Another question: Did the study factor in high mobility rates in some districts, where as many as half of students may enter or leave in a given school year?

And while school districts themselves submit attendance data to the state, officials in some schools and districts have already said some of the figures contain errors.

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