Newark's Absenteeism Crisis

Another year, another Newark attendance campaign. Can León succeed where others have failed?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Like his predecessors, Superintendent Roger León is taking on Newark's "epidemic" of absenteeism. It won't be easy.

As the final days of summer melted away last month and Newark families began stuffing backpacks and straightening uniforms, district officials commenced their own back-to-school tradition: They launched a new attendance campaign.

In late August, the new superintendent, Roger León, summoned the district’s entire workforce to a hockey arena to announce, among other initiatives, a plan to achieve perfect attendance in every school — an audacious and improbable goal in any district but especially so in a system where nearly one in three students is considered chronically absent. It’s part of an age-old battle — as well as a new push locally and nationally — to ensure students show up daily for class.

Before long, families were fielding calls from district employees, who had each been assigned five households to remind of the school year’s Sept. 4 start date, and from León himself, who recorded a back-to-school message. At a local principal’s request, the manager of a ShopRite supermarket even spread the word over his store’s loudspeaker.

“We want to make sure that students come to school everyday,” León told reporters after August’s all-staff meeting. “Every day matters.”

Nationwide, districts are trying to boost attendance this school year — raffling off gift cards and even cars for perfect attendance and conducting home visits — as states, including New Jersey, begin factoring absenteeism rates into school and district ratings under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed new legislation requiring schools where 10 percent or more of students are chronically absent to create corrective plans. In Newark, 62 of 64 district schools had absenteeism rates that high in the 2016-17 school year, the latest for which data is publicly available.

The nationwide crackdown on absenteeism is backed by extensive research showing that students who are chronically absent — typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the days in a single school year for any reason — are at serious risk of having lower grades and test scores, dropping out of school, and becoming ensnared in the juvenile-justice system. Low-income students, who make up three-fourths of Newark’s enrollment, are among the most likely to miss school.


But as León, a 25-year Newark Public Schools veteran who became superintendent on July 1, is sure to find, recognizing an attendance problem is one matter — solving it is quite another.

His two immediate predecessors also launched ambitious campaigns to improve attendance. But as they tried to slash through the thicket of obstacles that keep students from school — problems with health and housing, transportation and school culture — both watched their initiatives to combat absenteeism fizzle as school employees struggled to carry out the plans.

Indeed, by the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district’s chronic absenteeism rate was actually higher than in 2011-12, when the first of León’s two predecessors took the reins. Whether León will learn from their mistakes — or fall into similar traps — remains to be seen.

“The bottom line is that the superintendent can say whatever he wants,” said Pastor Van Ness Roper of True Deliverance Christian Life Church, an education advocate who was recruited to help with the first attendance campaign. “But if your staff and those you give the plan to don’t implement it, it’s just a wasted idea.”

Big ambitions, disappointing results

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched a campaign called “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow.”

Five years ago, Newark’s then-state appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, declared an absenteeism “epidemic” and insisted she had the cure.

Like León would later do, she unveiled an attendance campaign at the start of the 2013-14 school year with a lofty goal — to cut absenteeism in half within three years. If successful, the campaign, called “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow,” would expose students to 1 million hours of learning they would have otherwise missed, Anderson said.

Before school started, district officials asked religious leaders to adopt schools and bodegas to stop selling snacks to students during school hours. They asked community-based organizations to post back-to-school flyers and call families using scripts the district provided.

But almost immediately, the plan ran into challenges.

Three former Anderson officials said her administration struggled to stay focused on the campaign as they scrambled to enact a host of other sweeping policy changes — including a district overhaul Anderson announced in December 2013, which sparked widespread protests.

Amid that backlash, some community and parent leaders were reluctant to support Anderson’s attendance drive, even though it was relatively uncontroversial. Meanwhile, school leaders were hard pressed to meet the demands of the new campaign — which involved creating attendance plans, developing reward programs, scheduling community events, and following up with frequently absent students — without the help of attendance counselors, whom Anderson had laid off that July as a cost-cutting measure.

“There was no systemic way to deal with the attendance issue after she got rid of the attendance counselors,” said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, a school board member at the time who is now the mayor’s education advisor. “Somebody has to be responsible who doesn’t have 100 other responsibilities.”

Officials at the time said the counselors had done little to combat absenteeism and insisted that principals and teachers needed to play a bigger role in raising attendance. But Anderson’s campaign also appeared to have a limited impact — rather than falling by 50 percent as projected, the chronic absenteeism rate was basically unchanged after three years.

Meanwhile, the firing of the 46 attendance counselors would continue to dog Anderson. In 2016, an administrative law judge sided with the Newark Teachers Union in a lawsuit challenging the layoffs, though the state education commissioner later overturned that decision. And during an earlier legislative hearing, a state lawmaker argued that the layoffs had doomed Anderson’s attendance plan from the start.

“You don’t gut out the social support network in a system like Newark,” said former Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, now Murphy’s lieutenant governor, at the Jan. 2015 hearing, “and anticipate that we’re going to have great improvements.”

Fine-tuned policies amid daunting obstacles

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Former Superintendent Christopher Cerf (center, in purple tie) aimed for better implementation of the district’s attendance policies.

Three years after the launch of Anderson’s attendance campaign, she was replaced by a new superintendent, Christopher Cerf, who in an instance of district déjà vu, newly declared absenteeism “an issue of crisis proportions” in Newark’s schools.

At an Oct. 2016 school board meeting, he said the crisis did not stem from a lack of attendance policies. For example, teachers were required to record daily attendance by 10 a.m., and schools were to call, write, and finally meet with families as absences accumulated. The problem with these plans, Cerf said, was the lack of follow-through.

“We do not believe those policies and procedures have been consistently implemented,” he said at the board meeting, “and that is on us.”

His administration set out to fix that.

Teachers were urged to take daily attendance so that schools would have reliable data to analyze. “School support teams” — the group of employees in every school who had inherited the tasks of the fired attendance counselors — were asked to review the data and come up with rewards and interventions. High schools had to establish daily “advisory” periods when faculty members would meet with a small group of students — an effort to forge personal connections strong enough to draw teenagers to school.

But a program that the district piloted during that same period, modeled off one used in New York City, suggested that schools also need more supports — not just better policy implementation — to reverse patterns of absenteeism.

At five South Ward schools that had been outfitted with extra social services through a “community schools” initiative, part-time “success mentors” were hired to work closely with students who were repeatedly absent and with their families.

Early data showed the mentors were having a positive impact on attendance — so much so that officials had hoped to place mentors in additional schools, said Brad Haggerty, Cerf’s chief innovation officer, adding that Cerf stepped down in February before the additional mentors were added. The planned expansion was a tacit acknowledgement that schools needed more people-power to curb absenteeism.

“That’s the direction we were going in — to give more people resources,” Haggerty said, adding a caveat that he believes extra personnel dedicated to attendance will only be effective if school-based teams share in the work. “You’re not going to solve that with one person.”

And some barriers to attendance go beyond policies and resources. In 2016 and 2017, the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey published reports based on interviews with students, parents, and educators that explored the tangle of factors behind Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate, which exceeds the level even in other high-poverty New Jersey districts.

Among younger students, the causes included high asthma rates and a lack of busing for students who live less than two miles from school. Among high schoolers, boring classes, long or dangerous commutes, and adult responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or holding down jobs were cited. One student told the researchers: “I’ve gotta go out and make money. I’ll worry about school tomorrow.”

“You can’t simply mandate your way out of these kinds of issues,” said Peter Chen, who co-authored the reports with Cynthia Rice. For instance, the district can set a deadline for submitting daily attendance, he added, “But that’s not going to suddenly make students live closer to schools or their asthma go away or not have to work a job to support their family.”

A ‘refreshing’ promise to send backup

Superintendent León called his back-to-school campaign “Give Me Five!”

If one lesson of the past five years is the stubbornness of the district’s absenteeism problem, Newark’s new superintendent appears undaunted.

Superintendent León has set a goal of every school reaching 100 percent attendance. (Experts caution against focusing solely on attendance rates, noting that schools with high average daily attendance can still have a core group of chronically absent students.) For now, he sees his role as largely that of a cheerleader, but aims to provide more personnel in time.

“Right now, what we do is, we say, ‘The objective’s high — you figure out how to get there,’” he said in a recent interview.

He has promised to restore the attendance counselors — a move welcomed by many educators and community leaders. But, in a nod to the past, where the presence of counselors often did little to improve attendance, he insisted that schools must partner with these counselors rather than simply outsource attendance efforts to them.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” he said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

León pointed to his back-to-school campaign as an early success, saying this year’s first-day attendance rate was higher than last year’s. The real test, however, will be whether schools can maintain any initial gains throughout the year — when rates tend to sag — while at the same time driving down chronic absenteeism among the third of students who miss roughly a month or more of class each year.

Already, some educators say they are heartened by León’s early moves. Maria Ortiz, principal of Luis Muñoz Marin School, said the message conveyed by the back-to-school campaign and attendance counselors is that the district leadership is committed to helping schools improve attendance, rather than simply ordering them to do so.

“I don’t feel like we’re doing this alone,” she said, “which is really refreshing.”

In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will dig deeper into Newark’s absenteeism crisis. Do you have questions you want answered? Thoughts on what causes students to miss school? Or promising attendance practices you want to highlight? If so, please take this brief survey. You can also email me at pwall@chalkbeat.org.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”