At least 125,000 children in New Jersey missed 18 or more days of school in 2013-14 according to a report issued today by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
That number represents about 10 percent of all children and has an impact on state test scores and high school graduation rates, according to the report titled “Showing Up Matters.”
“You have to be in school to learn,” said ACNJ executive director Cecilia Zalkind. “Excessive absence in ninth grade is a more accurate predictor of dropout rates than test scores are.”
The report, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, uses state Department of Education data. It does not include all of Newark, the largest school district in the state, because not all data was available.
Statewide, the report found 177 public and charter school districts in the state in which more than 10 percent of students were chronically absent, which meant missing at least 18 days, or 10 percent of the school year.
The data shows that chronic absenteeism is high in kindergarten, reduces through elementary school, then increases again in high school, with 11th and 12th grade having the largest number of students chronically absent.
The median number of days absent by chronically absent students was 23, out of 180 days in the school year.
The report also found that chronically absent students were more likely to be economically disadvantaged, homeless, or have a disability. Black and Hispanic students also made up more than half of all chronically absent students, but only 40 percent of all students.
ACNJ senior analyst Cynthia Rice said most districts monitor their average daily attendance, and may not notice how many of the same students are chronically absent.
“It’s a bigger problem than we realize,” she said.
The state Department of Education has added chronic absenteeism as a College and Career Readiness indicator on the new School Performance Reports for elementary and middle schools, and many districts have responded to the results.
Local district officials note that the absentee rate includes illness and excused absences, so a large number of students with chronic illnesses can influence the absentee rate.
Shore districts also face the issue of families who work through the summer then take vacations during the school year.
Port Republic has just 124 students, so it took only 15 children with chronic absenteeism to exceed the 10 percent total rate. Interim superintendent Joetta Surace there there were a few students with severe medical issues that year. but they also have created incentive programs to stress the importance of daily attendance.
Retired Woodbine superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said as a small, rural district with no busing, weather plays a huge role in attendance. She got a grant to buy rain slickers for children. The district also used materials from the national group Attendance Works to promote good attendance and classes can get awards for perfect attendance.
State data show the chronic absentee rate in Woodbine dropped from 14 percent in 2011-12 to one percent in 2012-13, then bumped up to 8 percent in 2013-14.
“A few days of bad weather can make a huge difference,” Anderson-Towns said. “You just have to stay with the message.”
Parents also play a major role, and school officials said school attendance habits should start young. Districts with preschool say parents sometimes don’t take attendance as seriously since preschool is not required. Even kindergarten can be a challenge.
Wildwood superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said since the state only mandates school for children ages 6 to 16 it can be difficult to enforce attendance for preschool, kindergarten, and high school juniors and seniors.
“We try to be partners with parents, but we can and have gone to court for truancy for ages 6 to 16,” he said.
He said Wildwood is also a walking district, and local police, fire and school officials have gone out in bad weather to pick up students.
Districts with a lot of student mobility can also have higher absentee rates since students may miss weeks of school between leaving one district and enrolling in the next. Kummings said families from Mexico or Puerto Rico may return home for extended periods.
District officials in Ocean City, Margate, Middle Township, Little Egg Harbor, Millville and Vineland all said they have put programs in place that include both early contact with parents and incentives for students to attend every day.
“Our goal is to assist parents, not punish them but in certain circumstances we take parents to court for truancy,” Middle Township superintendent David Salvo said. Last year the district charged about 20 families with truancy.
Ocean City superintendent Kathleen Taylor said raising awareness and monitoring absenteeism more closely dramatically improved attendance rates, which had been as high as 30 percent at the Intermediate school, but was reduced to 9 percent in 2013-14.