At Hawkins Street School Tuesday morning, eighth-grade teacher Jasmine Johnson was at the whiteboard writing her students’ goals for the new school year — complete all assignments, get into a great high school — when in walked two unusual visitors: Newark’s mayor and schools chief.

Luckily for Johnson, Mayor Ras Baraka’s message was also about goals — namely, the lofty goal of perfect attendance.

“Try your best to get here and be in these seats every single day,” the mayor told the students as a phalanx of TV cameras captured his remarks from the back of the room. “It’s very, very important. The superintendent is super focused on that.”

Superintendent Roger León, who started in July and is the city’s first locally selected schools chief in more than two decades, told employees last week that he wants the district to achieve 100 percent attendance. That is a hugely ambitious, if not impossible, goal considering that the average daily attendance was 90 percent in 2016-17 and — even more troubling to experts — about 30 percent of students were chronically absent.

To assist in the effort, León has promised to rehire the attendance counselors who were laid off by former Superintendent Cami Anderson and to restore the truancy teams that in the past roamed the streets searching for students who cut class. He also ordered every district employee to call five students’ families before the start of the school year to remind them that school began Tuesday.

“It’s important for everyone to worry about student attendance,” León said during the all-staff meeting at the Prudential Center last Tuesday.

At a school board meeting that evening, district officials said that an analysis of state test data had shown a strong connection between attendance and test scores: Students who regularly showed up to class earned markedly higher scores.

Research shows the reverse is also true. Students who are chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school days, tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

Peter Chen, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New Jersey who co-wrote a report on Newark’s high-school absenteeism problem last year, said in an August interview that schools often take a compliance-driven approach to attendance. After students miss a certain number of days, staffers may call or write home and inform families of the problem.

He said that a more effective, but also more resource-intensive, strategy is to analyze why certain students are frequently absent — for instance, are they suffering from mental-health challenges or struggling with school work? Then social workers and other staffers should try to help remove those obstacles that are keeping students out of class, Chen added.

He also pointed out that León’s state-appointed predecessors, including Anderson and Christopher Cerf, also came up with plans to reduce absenteeism. But top-level mandates only go so far, Chen said.

“What we’ve seen is that leadership at the top matters,” he said. “But on a day-to-day basis, what happens in school buildings is often more a function of the school-building leadership.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Seventh-graders listened to Superintendent León on Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street, Principal Alejandro Lopez said his school’s attendance task force had already devised its own plan to boost attendance.

Students with perfect attendance each week will earn “Hawk bucks,” named for the school mascot, and be entered into raffles to win prizes. Also, the three classes with the highest attendance rates at the end of the year will take a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure theme park.

Meanwhile, support staff will look for ways to help students who are frequently absent. In 2016-17, 45 percent of Hawkins Street students missed more than 10 days of school. Getting them to show up every day this year will be hard, Lopez said — but doing so is crucial.

“If you’re not present, you’re not going to learn,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

After leaving Johnson’s room Tuesday morning, Mayor Baraka and Superintendent León stopped by a seventh-grade math class where teams of students were building towers out of noodles and marshmallows.

León told the class that he had attended Hawkins Street as a child, before growing up to become a teacher, principal, and now, superintendent. Baraka, another Newark Public Schools graduate and former principal, told the students he loved them and would make sure they got whatever they needed to succeed.

After the city officials left to visit two high schools, 12-year-old Angeles Rosario said she was excited about the new school year — and dance classes, in particular. That the mayor had chosen to visit her school first on Tuesday only added to her excitement, she said.

“There are many other schools in Newark,” she pointed out, “but he decided to come to ours.”