Last year, New Jersey enacted a law to help reduce chronic absenteeism. It required schools to report the number and percentage of students absent 10 percent or more, and to form plans to address the problem.
Experts say good data on chronic absenteeism is the first requirement, and the 19 percent rate in 2016-17 at the Pennsylvania Avenue School in Atlantic City prompted a broad examination of the issue and a strong response.
That rate is high even for South Jersey, where Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties are in the top six in the state for absenteeism (Cumberland was highest at 15.9 in this 2015-16 survey).
Too many absences in high school contribute to not graduating. Too many in junior high can cause problems in high school. But even for grade schools like Pennsylvania Avenue, research shows chronic absence in grades one to three is linked to decreased attendance in sixth to ninth grades, and increased risk of dropping out.
Principal LaQuetta Small and her team addressed absences with the kind of multi-pronged effort recommended by education researchers.
They helped students see the importance of attendance to their futures, and had them set goals for themselves. The school and the students monitored progress toward those goals, and then celebrated the good results. One way was awarding bags of donated school supplies last month to 200 students who had perfect attendance during the period.
The educators also started getting parents involved. Research shows that’s especially crucial for elementary students, whose absence is typically with an adult’s permission. A Brookings Institution report said sending parents a single postcard about attendance increased it by 2.4 percent, while intervening with parents in person boosted it 10 percent. Best of all was texting the parents whenever a student doesn’t show up for school, which increased attendance 17 percent.
Even proven approaches often aren’t enough, however, since local social and economic issues can affect students in so many ways. The Pennsylvania Avenue School and Small found and fixed an attendance stumbling block that’s probably absent from the research — parents would sometimes let kids skip school because they didn’t have a clean uniform to wear. She has a washer and dryer at the school now and offers to help make sure that’s no longer an issue.
That’s getting it done. A year ago, there were 119 students on the absentee watch list. Now there are just 55.
This better, smarter management of attendance from the state level down to the local level will pay off for years in children who are more successful at school and thereafter in life. That’s a big gain that makes the effort worthwhile.