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How one Atlantic City school is curbing chronic absenteeism

ATLANTIC CITY — Last year, Principal LaQuetta Small was presented with data showing her students were missing class at alarming rates, so over the summer she decided to fix it.

This year, students at the Pennsylvania Avenue School have cut their absenteeism by more than half thanks to a schoolwide effort that includes daily, weekly and monthly check-ins and incentives.

“Last year this time we had 119 students on the hot list. As of today, we only have 55,” said Small.

Chronic absenteeism — when a student misses 10 percent or more of the days they are enrolled during the school year — is a nationwide problem.

In August 2018, Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education released a new analysis of federal data on chronic absenteeism that found 1 out of 4 students nationwide attend schools with high or extreme levels of chronic absence.

“We know it affects achievement,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, when the report was released. “The reason we want to look at attendance is because we know it is so strongly tied with academic success.”

Chang said for middle school students, chronic absenteeism can predict not passing courses and for high schoolers can predict graduation rates.

Eighth grader Julian Marmolejo of Atlantic City was one of the students who improved their attendance dramatically this year. Last year, he had 30 absences.

Already a grade behind because of too many absences in his younger years, Marmalejo said he decided to turn it around and so far has only four absences.

“It’s important that you have good attendance so you don’t fail,” said Marmolejo, 15, after being recognized Friday for have perfect attendance in February.

He said he used to miss school just because he didn’t feel like going, but he realized that he might be forced to repeat eighth grade and didn’t want that to happen. Marmolejo said he has learned that having good attendance is good practice for the future, especially for a job.

“It’s good to get into the habit,” he said.

How was the Pennsylvania Avenue School able to see improvement?

Pennsylvania Avenue school absenteeism 2

“Everyone has bought into the idea of ‘attendance matters,’” Small said Thursday, as she accepted a donation of 200 drawstring bags filled with school supplies to present to the students who had achieved perfect attendance.

The donation was from Mission 500, the service arm of the New Jersey Electronic Security Association, which had its annual convention in Atlantic City at Harrah’s Atlantic City last week and was looking for a way to give back.

“Their incentive program, we felt it was just wonderful,” said Kenneth Gould, the association’s board president-elect.

Last May, the governor signed a bill to curb absenteeism by requiring districts to report both the percentage and number of students chronically absent. It also required districts to come up with a plan to address chronic absenteeism, which was a recommendation in the Advocates for Children of New Jersey’s 2017 reports on the topic.

The Pennsylvania Avenue School, which serves students in preschool through eighth grade, had a chronic absenteeism rate of 19 percent in 2016-17, the most recent state data shows. Small said when she learned that figure, she began to ask students, “Why?”

While some absences are unavoidable, Small said she learned that a lot of it was weather-dependent. Atlantic City is a walking district for its elementary students, so unless there is a special need, students are not bused to school.

“Students would say, ‘Dr. Small, it’s too far, it’s too cold,’” Small explained.

She said sometimes parents would give the students the option of not going, or allow them to miss school because they didn’t have a clean uniform.

“This current school year, we started getting the parents involved, so they can understand the importance,” Small said.

She said the students also set goals for themselves and begin to hold themselves accountable, and the district is holding them accountable, too.

“We’ve maintained contact with students who aren’t present daily, they know they have to meet someone,” Small said.

She said she has a washer and dryer in the school and offers to help with washing clothes to make sure students have clean uniforms. The district has attendance displays and awards for students and for classrooms with perfect attendance weekly and monthly.

“They hearing it every day, attendance matters,” Small said.

Small’s efforts were showcased to local administrators last week at a roundtable hosted by the Atlantic County Executive Superintendent, and she has also been asked to give a presentation on the topic at a conference in Orlando in July.

Small said, in the end, the goal of improving absenteeism is to improve student performance.

“The challenge was getting the students in school,” Small said. “Once you’re in school, you can focus on academic achievement.”

Rhythm & Spirits in the Orange Loop set to open this summer

ATLANTIC CITY — The developer behind a live music venue with a focus on cocktails and pizza — the latest addition to the strip of newcomer businesses on Tennessee Avenue — said his team is eyeing a summer opening.

The venue, Rhythm & Spirits, will join its neighbors — Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, MADE chocolate bar, Hayday coffee and Leadership Studio yoga — as the newest venture by developer Mark Callazzo, who also owns the Iron Room.

“This is just really the last project of our first phase of Tennessee Avenue,” Callazzo said.

Grant funds totaling $20,000 from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority will cover half of the bill for an old-style marquee announcing upcoming performers and upgrades to MADE’s exterior. Callazzo will foot the bill for the rest.

Music, Callazzo believes, can play a big part in making the “Orange Loop” inviting to residents and visitors.

“We do have some music at the beer hall but it’s not really music-centric,” he said. “We have some solo and duo acts on Friday and Saturday so Rhythm & Spirits is gonna be more live entertainment-centric. We always wanted music to be part of what we were doing on Tennessee Avenue.”

Kip Russell, a friend of Callazzo’s and the general manager at the beer hall, thinks live music could be essential to reinventing the area.

“Music, for the most part, breeds life, brings life to a neighborhood, just like any other of the arts,” Russell said. “The art community is thriving in Atlantic City, so I think this goes hand-in-hand.”

Workers in the building Thursday tore down ceiling tiles above where a stage and bar will soon be, while an industrial space heater blared against the cold outside. They said the demolition stage would likely be finished this week, making way for inside renovation in the coming weeks.

The former vice president of food and beverage at Harrah’s, Lee Sanchez, is consulting.

The walls, he said, will have metallic, neon wallpaper and burnt Japanese cedar, and the venue will feature “mid-century modern” furniture.

The stage and the bar, which will have a focus on “mixology,” will be Rhythm & Spirits’ focal point, Sanchez said. Performances for High Tea — a Sunday daytime party — will include music from many genres, as well as comedy and drag shows.

“It’s meant to be an open party that welcomes the community as a whole,” Sanchez said.

Iron Room Head Chef Kevin Cronin will oversee the kitchen.

“It’s nice to bring some of the good parts of the Iron Room (to Tennessee Avenue),” Callazzo said.

And the management team is coming together, he said.

“We have most of it in place, just not ready to announce it yet,” Callazzo said. “But a lot of people — be it servers and bartenders, and management staff — have expressed interest in coming on board.”

Callazzo is keeping an exact opening date for Rhythm & Spirits, and plans for a second phase of development nearby, under wraps.

Some residents that live near the businesses have expressed skepticism about the redevelopment of the area, but Russell said customers are already taking notice.

“We’re getting great cross-sections of people,” Russell said. “And these are people … they’re bullish for Atlantic City. They love Atlantic City as much as we do.”

Atlantic County has required Pleasantville to undergo a revaluation

PLEASANTVILLE — The Atlantic County Board of Taxation ordered city to undergo a revaluation.

Marge Schott, the county tax administrator, said Monday that were several reasons that the county is requiring the city to undergo a revaluation, including the fact that the last one was done in the municipality back in 2010.

The lack of uniformity among the city's assessments is another reason why the city will be undergoing a revaluation, Schott said.

The coefficient of deviation measures the uniformity among assessments, Schott said. Any coefficient of deviation greater than 15 indicates a lack of uniformity. The city's was 30.38 for last year, she said. 

The housing market crash in 2007 impacted the city’s ratables, said Linda D. Peyton, the city administrator. In the last five years, there have been at least 500 tax appeals, Peyton said.

“It will decrease, we believe, the number of tax appeal issues, which would be positive for the city and its residents,” Peyton said.

The revaluation will try to equalize the values among the municipality’s 5,000 residences and 1,500 commercial properties.

When residents hear about a revaluation, they believe it will have a formidable impact on them, but Mayor Jesse J. Tweedle Sr. said this process will be more about equalization.

The net taxable value for the city for last year was $775,246,000, according to the Atlantic County Board of Taxation.

When county, school and municipal tax rates are combined in the city for last year, the total general tax rate was $4.673 per $100 of assessed value, the county Board of Taxation said.

During the revaluation process, an outside firm will look at all city properties, including apartments, condos, single-family homes and commercial.

They will place a value on a property based on a variety of factors, including its condition and size, said Barry Ludy, the city's chief financial officer.

“They will take pictures of it. They will measure it. They will do everything they can to determine a value of your property,” Ludy said. “If you have a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, they will look at other three-bedroom, two-bathroom houses in the city and what they sold for, that determines the market value, that’s the assessed value.”

Peyton sees the process being finished before the end of the calendar year.

The city has put out specs and is seeking bids from qualified firms to do the revaluation and has set the date of March 27 as the deadline to submit a bid.

“There are six qualified firms in New Jersey, and we have sent out specifications to all six of them,” Ludy said.

An attorney, a consultant, and Ludy, who is a qualified purchasing agent, will look at all the bids to see that what was asked for is in the packages, he said.

City Council will vote on the recommended lowest qualified bidder at either its April 1 or April 15 meeting, Tweedle said.

After a firm is awarded a bid, it is expected that by May 1, the company will gather its people to do the revaluation and schedule where they have to go, Ludy said.

The community will be notified by door knockers or mailers when the actual on-the-ground work of the revaluation will start, Peyton said.

“I believe it (the revaluation) will help our finances because it will stabilize our tax base,” Ludy said