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.

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.