Legislators looking to tackle the issue of chronic absenteeism in the state’s schools held a hearing yesterday and this time, they went straight to the source: students.
“We all went through the education system and we have all been affected by failures within the system,” Hansier Rodriguez, a sophomore at Rutgers University-Newark told the lawmakers at the hearing of the joint committee on public schools Tuesday. “We looked through previous research done on chronic absenteeism and didn’t find any implementation of youth or student voice in the focus of the research.”
To fill that void, Rodriguez and other students from Newark’s public high schools and Rutgers University-Newark formed a research group to study chronic absenteeism. They presented their findings to the legislators Tuesday with an emphasis on changing school culture and climate — culture, being the enduring, foundational feel of a school and its community, and climate, the more immediate experience of entering any particular school building.
Working with the Rutgers-based Abbott Leadership Institute and a New Jersey Health Initiatives grant program called New Ark Leaders of Health, what the students found from analyzing state data and surveying their peers in Newark was a host of obstacles preventing students from regularly attending school. The list included everything from fears of bullying and gang violence to some students having transportation problems or not knowing school was mandatory. Others were holding down a job or otherwise shouldering adult responsibilities, like taking care of children and siblings, and personal health issues.
Newark has historically suffered jarringly high absentee rates. In the 2016-2017 school year, the latest for which data is publicly available, 62 of the district’s 64 schools met the definition for having “chronically absent” student bodies — meaning that 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 problem is not limited to Newark. Also testifying were officials from the Board of Education and representatives of groups like the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and Advocates for Children of New Jersey who noted that the students’ concerns also affect kids in every ZIP code and socioeconomic status across the state. According to New Jersey Department of Education data, in the 2016-2017 school year, more than 700 of the 2,516 schools in New Jersey had student populations that met the definition of chronic absenteeism.
A problem that has resisted previous fixes
Chronic absenteeism is a challenge New Jersey has been battling for decades. In May of 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill requiring schools with high chronic absenteeism rates to develop a corrective action plan to improve attendance. Under this new regulation, schools must examine their absenteeism data and figure out the causes. Then, they’ll have to formulate strategies specific to their student population and community. It’s no easy task.
“What we’ve heard from our students and what we see out in the world cannot be fixed in a year or two years. It is a generational fix,” said Mark Biedron, a former president of the State Board of Education who co-chaired the governor’s Education, Access, and Opportunity transition committee.
To aid districts in this process, the lawmakers heard more than two hours of testimony Tuesday in hopes of gathering recommendations to write up guiding legislation.
The students suggested that there be better ways of informing and involving parents and community members about the attendance process. Under the current law, a student can be chronically absent if they regularly miss even two days a month — something that students and parents noted wasn’t always obvious to them as they were accruing missed days.
“We’re holding them accountable for chronic absenteeism, but no one knew that we were measuring that and we were failing,” said Kaleena Berryman, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute. “I’m a highly educated, highly motivated mother and my 6-year-old was chronically absent because if he was sick, I would keep him home — or if I was sick I would keep him home in kindergarten.”
“Once I was informed about chronic absenteeism, I don’t think he’s missed a day of school yet this year. Not one,” she added.
Stories from the students themselves
The most visible causes of chronic absenteeism are often connected to poverty, according to those who spoke. Students reiterated the hardships of attending school where wearing the wrong color could mean a gang beating, close friends die from drug-related incidents, and unreliable transportation coupled with extreme weather events can mean risking one’s physical well-being by walking several miles to school.
Eric Bellamy, a senior at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, recalled being homeless in 2013 and unpopular at school. When he lost his home he lost everything, including access to transportation and his required school uniform. His mental health suffered as a result. “I had all these questions: What if someone found out? What if they made fun of me?” he said. “I was so depressed I just stopped going to school.”
For Amaly Garcia, now a junior at Rutgers-Newark studying nonprofit management and pursuing a master’s in public health, graduating from high school was not a given. Her parents were undocumented immigrants and worked long hours, leaving her to care for her baby sister.
“It was really a challenge for me to get to school on time and all this lateness accumulated until I was chronically absent,” Garcia said. She noted that there were programs and scholarships offered at her school to help students like her but she was unsure if she could participate without risking deportation or legal action against her parents.
A common thread through the students’ stories was a failure of school officials and administrators to reach out and support them during this time.
“It’s like they know there are the good students and the bad students,” Garcia said. “Sometimes it’s like [bad] kids are obstacles in the classroom,” being disruptive and difficult to instruct. “They have this perception that the school is better without you here.”
The students recommended the state investigate the placement of mental health professionals experienced in youth trauma and poverty in schools with high absenteeism rates.
Despite law, bullying remains a factor
Along with poverty-related issues, members of the LGBTQ community spoke Tuesday about the pressures from bullying that cause thousands of students in New Jersey to miss school every day.
Indeed, a new survey found that LGBTQ students continue to face bullying, harassment, discrimination and physical violence even after a tough anti-bullying law was enacted in the state.
Advocates suggested that more funding might play a key role in a solution.
“There is a bullying prevention fund that was originally established in the anti-bullying bill of rights that has not been funded since the first year of its existence.” Patricia Wright, executive director of the NJPSA told lawmakers. “The fund was originally only funded at $1 million, if you take into account the number of school districts in New Jersey, what I think now is that funding needs to be targeted” to “special school climate teams” that would have the responsibility to make improvements on a case by case basis.
Another area that can be immediately improved is data collection and analysis. “New Jersey is one of the worst states in the country in terms of having accurate clear information data about what goes on in schools,” said Stuart Green, the founder and director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention.
In a recent national Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System report by the CDC, New Jersey’s data couldn’t be counted because “we didn’t reach the required 60 percent level of obtaining information within the schools,” Green emphasized. He recommended altering a state law requiring parents consent for data collection on the children. “It essentially functions as a critical barrier to learning what’s going on in our schools,” he said.
Assembly committee chair Mila Jasey (D-Essex) said lawmakers will now consider the recommendations made at the hearing and begin drafting legislation to address the issues covered.
“It is our hope that out of this hearing we will be able to actually create substantive policies and procedures,” Jasey said.