136,000 NJ Students Were ‘Chronically Absent’ Last Year. Here’s What Schools Can Do
TRENTON — A personal phone call from a teacher or a "We Miss You" postcard can go a long way in the quest to connect with students who are frequently absent and bring them back to the classroom.
Those are a few of the tactics used at Hedgepeth/Williams Middle School of the Arts, which was able to reduce its chronic absenteeism rate from nearly a quarter of the students to just 6 percent in the matter of one month.
Principal Adrienne Hill said a specially-formed attendance team is devoted to forming relationships with students who miss school too often and their families. In the process, the staff can learn why a student is absent so frequently.
"It just has to be a real decent human conversation and I think that's why we've been successful," Hill told Townsquare Media.
The school also has an incentive program — Tiger Tokens — and students can earn rewards for positive behavior such as showing up on a daily basis.
The findings of a new report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey, announced Wednesday morning at Hill's school, pointed to roughly 136,000 Garden State students considered chronically absent during the 2014-15 school year. By definition, these students missed at least 10 percent of the year, including excused and unexcused absences.
"Chronic absenteeism is found in all types of districts," said Cynthia Rice, co-author of the report. "It's in our low-income districts, our wealthier districts, middle income."
And the reasons can vary from district to district, Rice said. It may be a lack of transportation or an unstable housing situation. Health issues such as asthma have been mentioned by a number of superintendents, she said.
According to ACNJ, schools can get a better handle on their attendance numbers by analyzing the data in these first couple weeks of the school year.
"If schools haven't looked at who's absent these first few days, it's a missed opportunity," Rice said. "Because the number of days missed in September is a reflection of the students missing later on."
The earliest and latest grades saw the largest rates of poor attendance, the report said. Twelve percent of kindergarteners and 18 percent of high school juniors and seniors were chronically absent.
In Pemberton, child study team members each targeted five to seven kids who had issues with attendance. Adelina Giannetti, director of special services, said staff was able to develop a rapport with the students and parents and uncover issues that may have been keeping a child from coming to school.
"We developed incentive systems, we sent letters home, had meetings and developed action plans with our families to make sure they understood the most important thing was to come to school everyday," Giannetti said.
The district's chronic absenteeism rate dropped 11 percent between 2013-14 and 2014-15.