Teaming Teachers, School Staff, and Parents to Fight Chronic Absenteeism

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | December 19, 2017 | Education
While there have been some gains in the war against absenteeism in the past year, too many students are still missing too many days

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Schools would have a new requirement to address the problem of chronic absenteeism under a bill heading toward final approval.

The bill (A-2352) that cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday would require every public school in which at least 10 percent of students are absent for 18 days or more in a year, or about 10 percent of the school year, to develop — in conjunction with the district’s parents — a plan to reduce absenteeism.

“Chronic absenteeism creates major academic challenges for students, teachers, and school administration, and is a gateway to countless challenges later in life for those students who suffer the negative effects of missing school,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Muoio (D-Mercer).

One in 10

The effort is meant to address a problem involving nearly one in 10 New Jersey public school students. A report released last month by Advocates for Children of New Jersey stated that 129,000 pupils statewide missed at least 10 percent of their classes in the 2015-2016 school year. That represented a reduction of about 6 percent over the previous year, but is still too many, officials said.

ACNJ is supporting the legislation. Cecilia Zalkind, the group’s president, said that since ACNJ began pushing for action to combat chronic absenteeism two years ago many school districts “from across the state have demonstrated that improving student attendance is possible.”

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), a primary sponsor of the bill, agreed that this is a solvable problem.

“Even the best educational reforms will not be able to succeed if students are not in school to learn,” she said. “ACNJ’s report shows that when school districts and communities sit down to look at the reasons why students are missing school, we can begin to develop plans and solutions to get to the root of the problems.”

ACNJ’s report cites several instances districts that, after examining chronic absenteeism within their own schools, have put in place programs that are successfully improving student attendance.

The Long Branch approach

For instance, it tells the story of Long Branch, where officials constantly review their absentee data and when they find a preschooler is missing too much school, they refer the student to a team of staff who then reach out to the child’s family to try to solve the problem before the child misses too many classes.

“Our early childhood teams are beginning to realize the impact chronic absenteeism in preschool has on a student’s entire education,” Long Branch Superintendent Michael Salvatore said. “Attendance data will remain a hot topic on every level for us, but especially in our early-learning programs and action plans. Our hopes are to correct this issue early and change the trajectory of learning for our children.”

Similarly, North Brunswick’s nurses have put a program in place in which students with a lot of absences get one-on-one attention from a nurse to identify causes and find solutions to those issues. They have also elevated the level of conversation about the problem to include presentations on chronic absenteeism on back-to-school night, using videos and social media to present information about the problem and writing about attendance in parent newsletters.

Pemberton has made similar efforts in using data to find attendance problems before they get too large and communicating early with parents, who they had found often don’t know how many days their children have missed and how that compares with most students. They have successfully reduced rates in elementary grades and among economically disadvantaged students, but are still struggling with high school students’ absence rates. After learning domestic violence at home is a likely cause for chronic absenteeism in a large percentage of these cases, staff this year is working on ways to address student trauma and make sure pupils know the school is a safe place.

‘Digging deep’

“The key to reducing absenteeism has been digging deep into the reasons for student absence and executing strategies targeting the reason,” said Tony Trongone, Pemberton’s schools superintendent. “Right now, we are working on how to develop new strategies to address student trauma, which we have found, through data, is more prevalent than we intuitively imagined among our students.”

But the problem is widespread: 192 school districts and charter schools across the state had chronic absentee rates of more than 10 percent in 2015-2016. The greatest proportional problem was in Cumberland County, where nearly 16 percent of the 25,450 students were absent 18 days or more. Essex County had the largest number of students missing large numbers of days, nearly 18,100.

According to ACNJ’s report, while a district may not have a high overall rate of absenteeism, it may have problems among certain populations of students, such as minorities, children in low-income families, and children in special education. And poor attendance in New Jersey is highest in the very early grades and in high school: 11.4 percent of kindergartners and 16.4 percent of high school juniors and seniors were chronically absent.

‘Pockets of high absences’

“A school district may have a low rate of absenteeism among the entire student population, but when you take a closer look, you may see pockets of high absences among certain groups which require different solutions and interventions to improve attendance,” said Cynthia Rice, ACNJ senior policy analyst and one of the co-authors of the report.

Under the legislation, schools with chronic absenteeism would have to draft corrective action plans. They would have to include the identification of barriers to school attendance, the development of recommendations to address those problems, the crafting of communication strategies to educate parents on the importance of school attendance and to inform and engage parents when a child begins to show a pattern of absences’ and a review of school policies to ensure that they support improved school attendance.

Schools would have to get input from parents through multiple means, including through a survey, engagement with the school’s parent organization, or holding of a public meeting to provide parents with the opportunity to provide input.

The measure also requires the state Department of Education to include information about chronic absenteeism on school report cards and report on the rates to the state Board of Education.

The state and local districts already have been ramping up their efforts to tackle this problem. Since the release of ACNJ’s second report last year, New Jersey has joined 33 states and the District of Columbia in using student absences as a measure for school quality and success under the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan. And schools throughout New Jersey have moved to encourage regular attendance using such tactics as increasing communication efforts among families and including chronic absenteeism as a core part of professional development among staff.

On Monday, the Assembly Appropriations unanimously approved the bill, which is not expected to cost the state any additional money. It has already passed the Senate and just needs final approval by the full Assembly before heading to the governor’s desk for consideration.