S. J. absentee rates among state’s highest

{child_byline}CLAIRE LOWE

Staff Writer

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Experts agree being in school is a key component to being successful in school, but more than 120,000 New Jersey students are missing too much class time, a new report shows.

“The bottom line is if students aren’t in school, they’re not learning,” said Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), who co-authored the report.

The third annual chronic absenteeism report from ACNJ, released this week, shows while chronic absenteeism is on the decline statewide, southern New Jersey students fare worse than their North Jersey counterparts when it comes to missing school.

Cumberland, Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties have four of the six highest absenteeism rates among the state’s 21 counties, according to the data compiled from the New Jersey Department of Education, with more than 19,000 students chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year.

Chen said national research has shown students who are chronically absent have worse academic outcomes.

“Fewer students are going to be able to read by third grade. In high school, we see absenteeism strongly predicts graduation rates,” Chen said.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the total enrolled school days regardless of them being excused, unexcused or suspensions — equal to 18 days. Statewide, the number of students identified as chronically absent has dropped by 8,000 from 2014-15 to 2015-16, according to the report, “Showing up Matters: The State of Chronic Absenteeism in New Jersey.”

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to addressing chronic absenteeism, the report suggests.

“A school district may have a low rate of absenteeism among the entire student population, but when you take a closer look, you may see pockets of high absences among certain groups which require different solutions and interventions to improve attendance,” said Cynthia Rice, ACNJ senior policy analyst and another report co-author.

Brian D. McGuire, school leader and principal at Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, said the school has been addressing its chronic absenteeism with a tiered intervention system. McGuire said the system is for both conduct and attendance because suspensions count toward absenteeism.

“Both systems have monitoring and counseling built into each level along with SMART goals to help struggling artists decrease behavior issues that might lead to suspensions and decrease attendance,” he said, adding that there are also incentives to encourage attendance.

Chartertech also rewrote its attendance policy to lower the threshold for excused absences from 18 to 14.

“Currently, with our new measures, our chronic absenteeism rate is 16.9% based on the number of days we have been enrolled in school for the 2017-2018 school year. Clearly, our current programs are having a direct positive effect on our Artists,” McGuire said.

While two schools may have the same rate of chronic absenteeism, there might be very different driving factors to why that is, Chen said.

Financial insecurity is a common factor among students who miss too much school, with low-income students being twice as likely to be chronically absent, the report says. Homelessness was a risk factor among those with chronic absences, too.

Children with special needs had one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, at 17 percent, more than double that of other students. The report links the high rate of absenteeism among students with special needs to a higher instance of out-of-school suspension for those students.

Other common factors include race and limited proficiency in English. Black and Hispanic children were more likely to be absent than white or Asian children, the report shows. In the 2015-16 school year, 17 percent of students who are black and 13 percent who are Hispanic were chronically absent, compared with 8 percent of students who are white and 5 percent who are Asian.

Drilling down data to find out why students are absent will help the districts come up with a plan to address their specific needs, Chen said.

“The first step is for each school to take a look at its chronically absent students and really dig in and see what are the issues that are causing that,” he said.

Chen suggested schools can use surveys, focus groups or interviews to come up with the reasons for absences. He said districts can use messaging strategies to promote the importance of attendance to parents. He also suggested schools may already have resources in place to help parents who are struggling economically or whose children need special medical attention.

“You can’t just bring in some program and magically fix attendance. This is something that requires a school district and a community to come together and start digging into the reason in their community for the reasons why absences are so high,” Chen said.

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About 8,000 fewer New Jersey students were chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year than in 2014-15.

The number of K-12 students missing too much school fell from 136,000 to 129,000 in total, moving the statewide chronic absenteeism rate from 10.3 to 9.7 percent.

More than one in every four preschoolers was chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year.

ACNJ saw a decrease in the number of high-absentee school districts, from 216 to 192 school districts.

Poor attendance in New Jersey was highest in the very early grades and in high school; 11.4 percent of kindergartners and 16.4 percent of high school juniors and seniors were chronically absent.

Source: Advocates for Children of New Jersey

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Absenteeism in New Jersey is improving thanks to the efforts of local school districts, the report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey states.

In addition, New Jersey’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan — the federal replacement for No Child Left Behind — now uses absenteeism as a factor to measure school quality.

A bill in the Legislature, already passed by the Senate, aims to remedy chronic absenteeism by requiring schools to include its absenteeism rate in its school-performance report. Schools that are identified as having a problem must to come up with a plan to fix it. The bill has until the end of the year to pass before having to be reintroduced in the Legislature.

{/child_related_content_content}{/child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_style}Bio Box{/child_related_content_style}{child_related_content_title}South Jersey counties show high percentage of chronically absent students{/child_related_content_title}{child_related_content_content}

In Cumberland County, where 15.9 percent of students were chronically absent — the highest in the state — 98 percent of students at Fairfield Township schools were absent more than 10 percent of the school year. Cumberland County Vocational School had 30 percent of students with chronic absenteeism, but Superintendent Dina Elliott said the information is misleading. Elliott said that at the time the data was taken, the district was operating part-time for most students except for a handful of special-needs students.

In Atlantic County, CharterTech High School in Somers Point had chronic absenteeism of nearly 30 percent of its students. Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District’s chronic absenteeism affected about 19 percent of students.

In Cape May County, Ocean City had nearly 22 percent of its student body chronically absent, and Stone Harbor had almost 16 percent.

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Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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