chronically absent

Newark’s absenteeism problem persists as thousands of students miss several days this year, new data show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León addressed ninth-graders in September. That month, about 30 percent of those students were considered "chronically absent."

Thousands of Newark students have already missed multiple school days this year, newly released data show, even as the district’s new superintendent makes improving attendance a top priority.

About one in five students missed more than a week’s worth of class during the first three months of school, according to the district data. Those roughly 8,000 students are already considered “chronically absent.”

Newark has long grappled with exceptionally high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in an academic year for any reason. Students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and greater odds of getting in trouble with the law.

The district’s new superintendent, Roger León, has promised to attack the issue — even going so far as to set a district goal of 100 percent attendance. But the new data, which León released this week, show how far the district has to go.

Nearly 9 percent of of the district’s 36,000 students have already missed the equivalent of more than two school weeks, according to the data. Those 3,200 or so students are labeled “severely chronically absent.”

Experts say that tracking and publicizing attendance data, as León has done, is the first step in combating absenteeism. Now, some district leaders are calling for the next phase of work to begin — analyzing why so many students are missing class and taking steps at the district and school level to help get them to school.

“It’s great that we have all this great data,” Newark Board of Education member Kim Gaddy said at a board meeting last month. “But if you have the data and you’re not using the data to change the situation, we won’t do any justice to our children in this district.”

Students who missed six or more school days from September through November qualify as chronically absent. If they continue at that pace, they are on track to miss the equivalent of a month or more of school by June. Students who missed 10.5 days or more during those three months count as severely chronically absent.

Attendance from Sept. to Nov. 2018. | Green = absent 0-2.5 days | Yellow = absent 3-5.5 days | Orange = absent 6-10 days | Red = absent 10.5 or more days. | Credit: Newark Public Schools

The early data show that Newark’s long-standing absenteeism patterns are continuing. The chronic absenteeism rates over the past three months were about the same as in 2016, according to the data.

The problem remains most acute among the district’s youngest and oldest students: 41 percent of pre-kindergarteners were chronically absent this November, as were 45 percent of 12th-graders. At least a third of students at five high schools — Barringer, Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, Weequahic, and West Side — were severely chronically absent last month.

While absenteeism rates varied among schools, they tended to be highest in the city’s impoverished South Ward.

“I’m concerned particularly about the South Ward,” Gaddy said at the Nov. 20 board meeting. “That’s where our children need the most assistance.”

León, a former principal who became schools chief on July 1, has already taken some early steps to improve attendance.

His most visible effort was a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five,” where he ordered every district employee to call five families before the first day of school. The campaign, for which León himself recorded robocalls to families, appears to have made a difference: 91 percent of students showed up the first day, the highest rate of the past four years, according to district data. (In 2013, when former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched her own attendance campaign, about 94 percent of students attended school the first day.)

The district also eliminated some early-dismissal days, which typically have low attendance. And students with mid-level test scores whom León has targeted for extra support have had better attendance this year than their peers, officials said.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = 0-0.5 days absent | Yellow = 1-1.5 days absent | Orange = 2-2.5 days absent | Red = 3 or more days absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

However, León hit a snag trying to enact the crux of his attendance plan — reinstating more than 40 attendance counselors whom Anderson laid off years ago to cut costs. The state’s civil service commission has said the district must offer the jobs to the laid-off counselors before hiring anyone new, León told the board — forcing the district to track down former employees who, in some cases, have moved to different states. Only eight counselors have been hired to date, but León said he hopes to fill the remaining positions next month.

Meanwhile, León is arguing that some of the responsibility for improving attendance falls on families. At November’s board meeting, he said some parents and guardians “believe that, in fact, they can keep their children home” from school. At a parent conference this month, he took that message directly to families.

“I don’t care if school ends at 10 and they’re only going to come for an hour, and half an hour is on a bus,” he told several hundred parents who showed up for the daylong summit. “When I tell you that your child is coming to school, it’s your job to make sure the child comes to school.”

Afterwards, several parents and school employees said they welcomed León’s tough talk on attendance.

“It was about parents ensuring kids are in school and they are doing good,” said Bilikis Oseni, who has a child in first grade at Camden Street School. “Attendance is very key.”

Still, Newark families face many obstacles in getting their children to school, according to a 2016 report on chronic absenteeism among young students. Parents cited a lack of school busing, asthma and other childhood health problems, and work schedules that make it hard to drop off their children in the morning. High school students listed uninspiring classes, mental-health challenges, and safety concerns when traveling to school as reasons why they don’t show up, according to a 2017 report.

At the November board meeting, several members asked León whether he planned to dig deeper into the causes of absenteeism.

“I was looking through all the statistics here in the packet,” said Andre Ferreira, the board’s student representative, who attends Science Park High School. “But there were none that looked towards having a survey of students themselves telling you why they aren’t coming to school.”

León noted that he held forums with high-school students in September where he stressed the importance of showing up. He also said he has a student-only email address that some students have used to explain why they miss school.

“So I’m gathering data that lets me know why a particular student in fact hasn’t been to school,” he said. “Ultimately, we would have to do that for every single student, in every classroom, in every grade, in every school. That’s really the work — and it’s hard to do.”

Peter Chen, who co-authored the two reports on chronic absenteeism in Newark, said the superintendent had taken a crucial first step by raising awareness about the city’s attendance challenges. The district also appears to be sharing attendance data more regularly with schools, he said.

The next step is for the district to help schools identify and assist students who are chronically absent. The central office can do that by sharing effective attendance strategies, training school workers on how to support students’ social and emotional well-being, and offering grants to fund schools’ own attendance campaigns, he added.

“This is something that requires tailored, school-level responses,” said Chen, who is a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “The district can help support some of that — but it’s not something that’s easy to impose from on high.”

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“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,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”