Tens of thousands of New Jersey students are absent from school more than 18 days a year, according to data included in the 2012-13 New Jersey School Performance Reports.
The state Department of Education is highlighting chronic absenteeism as a growing body of research shows missing too many school days can have a long-term cumulative effect on a child's education.
The problem is statewide, affecting low-income, urban and wealthier suburban districts. Locally, districts as diverse as Ocean City, Margate, Egg Harbor City, Atlantic City and Vineland all had schools in which more than 20 percent of students were chronically absent.
The state defines chronic absenteeism as missing more than 18 days, or 10 percent of the school year.
More than 60 percent of the 1,815 elementary and middle schools included in the data had chronic absentee rates that exceeded the state's target rate of 6 percent, according to a review by The Press of Atlantic City. Many districts had even more students who were absent at least 15 days, or three weeks of school. A few schools did not report or had questionable data.
The issue is taking on increased importance nationally and is a move away from just tracking average daily attendance, which experts say can hide the number of students who are chronically absent since not all are absent at the same time.
A 2012 report by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of students are chronically absent each year.
Phyllis Jordan, spokeswoman for Attendance Works, a national organization working to raise awareness and improve school attendance, said she is not surprised that schools with a more than 90 percent daily attendance rate can still have a chronic absentee rate of 20 percent or even 30 percent.
"What is surprising is that until now, states haven't really looked at the data," she said. She cited New Jersey and Hawaii as among the first to track it.
"When you pay more attention do it, you can track it and tell which kids are in trouble and why," she said.
New Jersey school officials are paying more attention because the state performance reports include the chronic absentee rate as one of two benchmarks for elementary and middle schools to show they are helping students become college- and career-ready. State aid is also linked to the average daily attendance, so chronic absenteeism can reduce a district's state funding.
That's what happened in rural Woodbine, where the district lost $77,000 in state aid because its average daily enrollment dropped to 92 percent, four points below the state's 96 percent threshold.
Superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said in a small district of 240 students it doesn't take many absences to affect the percentage. District officials began reaching out more to parents and staff, promoting clubs and before- and after-school activities as an incentive to get students in school. She said because the small district has no busing, bad weather will affect attendance.
Vice Principal Anthony DeVico stays in contact with parents, and the effort has paid off for all students. The district improved from having a 14 percent chronic absentee rate in 2011-12 to just 1 percent in 2012-13. Overall attendance also improved, with 34 percent of students having perfect attendance in 2012-13, up from 16 percent the previous year.
School officials said many factors can affect attendance.
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 affected some shore communities as it took time for displaced students to make it home and back to school.
Eagleswood Elementary School in Ocean County saw its chronic absentee rate rise from 11 percent in 2011-12 to 59 percent in 2012-13. At the Hugh J. Boyd Elementary School in Seaside Heights, the rate rose from 33 percent to 42 percent. In Margate, the rate rose from 7 percent in 2011-12 to more than 20 percent in 2012-13.
Other factors include family dynamics and chronic illnesses.
Margate Superintendent Theresa DeFranco said district officials reviewed absentee patterns at the Tighe School and found seven students who were affected by Sandy, 44 students with chronic illnesses and 16 who lived in short-term winter rentals where there was a delay between the child leaving the old school and starting the new one.
"Add that to days they may have missed in their other district before they even got here, and it adds up," she said.
Some, she admitted, were families that just took long vacations.
"Here at the shore, families go on vacation when the parents can, and often that is not during the summer," said DeFranco. But, she said, those families tend to notify the district and arrange for the child to do the class work while they are gone.
"When the family is going to Europe, that is an educational experience," DeFranco said.
Still, she said, district officials are reviewing attendance policies and may tighten up on what is allowed as an excused absence. She said the district did take one family to court last year because of excessive absenteeism.
School officials said immigrant families will sometimes return to their native countries during holidays or the offseason, which may not coincide with the school year. Jordan said a couple of districts nationally have adapted school calendars to match those travel patterns.
Absenteeism in Atlantic City schools is a mix, with the district's two academically high-performing schools, Chelsea Heights and Sovereign Avenue, coming in at the state's 6 percent target rate, while the Uptown Complex and Pennsylvania Avenue schools are at the high end at 26 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Atlantic City Superintendent Donna Haye said she is concerned. She said district officials stress to parents the importance of education and try to find reasons to make the students want to come to school, such as serving dinner to students in the after-school program.
"Some of it is family situations," she said. "We need the parents to get on board. You can see how attendance connects to performance."
Jordan from Attendance Works said the highest absentee rates can often be in kindergarten, but that is a crucial time to be in school. Students develop poor attendance patterns early and will have trouble making up what they missed.
A 2011 study by Applied Survey Research suggests students who missed 10 percent of their kindergarten and first grade years scored an average of 60 points lower than similar students with good attendance on third-grade reading tests.
Jordan said she can't comment on whether the state's 6 percent target rate is realistic because there is still not enough research. But she praised New Jersey for including chronic absenteeism in performance reports.
NJDOE spokesman Mike Yaple said department officials looked at school-level data, how absenteeism was distributed across the state and correlated it with other measures of school performance.
"Our look at the data found that 6 percent seemed to be the sweet spot for targeting chronic absenteeism," he said.
Contact Diane D'Amico:
Chronic absenteeism in school
List shows the 10 local schools with the highest percentage of students who missed more than 18 days of school in 2012-13, and schools that met the state 6 percent target rate. Only elementary and middle schools are included.
Highest absentee rates
Eagleswood Elementary School: 59%
Ocean City Intermediate School: 30%
Charles Spragg School, Egg Harbor City: 27%
Uptown Complex, Atlantic City: 26%
Leeds Ave. School Pleasantville: 26%
Wallace Middle School, Vineland: 25%
Pinelands Regional Junior High: 24%
Ocean City Primary School: 24%
Tighe Middle School, Margate: 24%
Memorial School Vineland: 23%
Met state 6% target rate
Woodbine Elementary School: 1%
Seaview School, Linwood: 3%
Northfield Middle School: 3%
Northfield Elementary School: 3%
Belhaven School, Linwood: 4%
Goodwin School, Greenwich: 4%
Buckshutem Road, Bridgeton: 5%
Miller School, Egg Harbor Twp.: 5%
Stow Creek Twp. School: 5%
Hopewell Crest, Hopewell Twp.: 5.2%
Reeds Road, Galloway Twp.: 6%
McKinley School, Stafford: 6%
Sovereign Ave. Atlantic City: 6%
Long Beach Island Grade School: 6%
Chelsea Heights, Atlantic City: 6%
Source: N.J. Department of Education 2012-13 School Performance Reports
More data online
The chronic absentee rate for all elementary and middle schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties is with this story at pressofatlanticcity.com.