By Briana Vannozzi
Getting to school can take a lot more than simply catching the bus. In fact, in New Jersey the number of kids missing school is happening at alarming rates.
“10 percent of students in New Jersey, 125,000 k-12 students are considered chronically absent,” said Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey Cecilia Zalkind.
Zalkind’s non-profit child advocacy group analyzed data from the state Department of Education. Up until now, there’s been little focus on excessive absences and the impact.
“Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. So, in New Jersey because we have a 180-day school year, that’s 18 days a year or more, in fact 2 days a month,” Zalkind said.
Records showed chronically absent kids were actually out about 23 days a year. It has a ripple effect on test scores and graduation rates.
“We know that children need to be reading on grade level by grade three,” she said. “If they’re not that’s a big indicator of potential problems in school and eventual drop out. You have to be in school to learn how to read.”
“Just a few absences the month before students took the national test, the NAEP test, really showed a significant difference. An 11 point difference from students who made it everyday to school in reading and 13 points in math. That’s a huge difference,” said Senior Policy Analyst for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, Cynthia Rice.
Young students and high schoolers had the highest absentee rates according to the report. 23 percent of kindergartners and 27 percent of 12th graders fell into this category.
Minority students were also disproportionately affected. For the 2013-2014 school year, black students made up roughly 16 percent of New Jersey’s population, but represented 24 percent of those chronically absent. Similarly, Hispanic students represent about 25 percent of state student enrollment, but about 30 percent of this category. And the 38 percent of kids in low-income districts made up about 55 percent of the chronically absent. Cities like Camden, Paterson and Atlantic City topped the list. Newark didn’t have data available.
“Sometimes it’s the stress of living in a difficult community for families who are struggling. Sometimes its health reasons. Surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly dental issues are significant in keeping kids out of school,” said Zalkind.
New Jersey is one of only a handful of states required to report chronic absenteeism. Advocates for Children says that identifying the barriers is the first step to finding a solution.
“It’s working with parents. It’s setting up a climate of problem solving. Not I’m going to check you off if you’re not in school, but what can we do to make sure you get to school,” Zalkind said.
“From that first day of students coming back to school, administrators and teachers should be looking at who’s absent, how many times and in what grade they are,” Rice said.
The group is gathering detailed information on Newark schools to release a separate report and plans to investigate factors influencing high school absentee rates.