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Op-Ed: State’s New Law on Absenteeism — Only the Beginning

Schools that succeed in reducing absenteeism go beyond just complying with state and district rules to encourage and support attendance as a fundamental part of their mission to educate

Cynthia Rice and Peter Chen
Cynthia Rice and Peter Chen

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy took a giant step by signing into law a bill that would make every school day count for New Jersey’s children. Schools with high chronic-absenteeism rates would be required to develop corrective action plans to improve their student attendance. Students are considered “chronically absent” when they miss 10 percent or more of their school days, putting them at risk for academic setbacks.

But these plans, while an important step, are just the beginning. Over the past four years, Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) has travelled throughout the state, presenting on chronic absenteeism data, attendance strategies, and possible solutions. In a recent presentation, one school administrator remarked, “Anyone can develop a ‘plan.’ It’s what’s in the plan that counts.” She was right. Although the new law prompts schools with a chronic-absenteeism rate of 10 percent or more to address their attendance issues, it is up to each school to ensure that those plans are meaningful.

Sadly, high absenteeism is common in schools across New Jersey. According to New Jersey Department of Education data, in the 2016 – 2017 school year, about 10.3 percent of all K-12 students were chronically absent. In fact, more than 700 schools had more than 10 percent of their students missing too much school. Preschoolers, kindergartners, and high school students had significantly higher chronic-absenteeism rates than other ages, impacting their educational success. For young students, those absences can mean missing out on developing strong academic and social-emotional skills. For high schoolers, too many absences can place them at risk of not graduating on time.

Determining why students miss school

Although the negative impact of absences is clear, the reasons why each student might miss school differ. Under this new law, schools will have to determine the root causes of their high rates of absences and develop strategies tailored to the needs of their student population. Rather than focus on disciplinary action, the goal should be addressing the academic consequences of lost instructional time and creating a school culture that encourages attendance.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach that works, but schools that have dramatically curbed their chronic student rates share the following components of a successful attendance strategy.

First, they look at their data early and often, digging beyond the number of absences to find out the reasons for student absence. Some students might miss school because of health-related issues, unreliable transportation, or school and neighborhood safety. Finding out why students are absent must be the first step in any attendance plan. Additionally, looking at data by student demographic group may reveal pockets of high absenteeism in certain populations, such as students of color or students with special needs.

Second, the solutions these schools developed were tailored to address the specific barriers affecting regular attendance. Engaging parents and school staff is critical to understanding the needs of each student. For example, if a parent is not sending their child to school because of asthma flare-ups, the school nurse could assist in referring appropriate services to help the student manage their asthma.

Finally, schools that have succeeded in reducing absenteeism showed intentionality behind their strategies. Rather than merely attempt to comply with state and district rules, they went beyond compliance to encourage and support attendance as a fundamental part of a school’s mission to educate — a mindset shift that required staff commitment and community engagement.

Schools are only part of the equation to improving attendance, but what they do matters immensely. With a clear plan and a concerted effort, schools that are struggling with high absentee rates can make a difference in turning the tide. Students cannot achieve academic success if they are not present to benefit from the learning experience. Gov. Murphy has taken the first step; it is now up to schools to make every school day count.

Cynthia Rice, senior policy analyst, and Peter Chen, policy counsel, of Advocates for Children of New Jersey have led the work to bring attention to the problem of student chronic absenteeism in the state since the release of their first report in 2015, "Showing Up Matters: The State of Chronic Absenteeism in New Jersey."

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