Half of Newark high schoolers are 'chronically absent' - here's what's being done

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on February 17, 2016

Oliver Street School in Newark's East Ward, shown here in a file photo. The city's state-controlled school district is exploring ways to reduce chronic absenteeism among students.

 

NEWARK – A recent study that found nearly half of all city high school students miss school at an alarming rate has local officials springing into action.

On Wednesday, Superintendent of Schools Christopher Cerf announced the formation of a new "Attendance Committee" focused on reversing the trend throughout the city's school system.

In a statement, he said the group would consist of both school district leaders and community members, and would focus on both the causes and effects of chronic absenteeism – defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days.

"There are a number of great things happening across our schools, but if a child is not present in the classroom, it makes it difficult for educators to help them succeed," Cerf said.

The move comes one month after a study by Advocates for Children of New Jersey found chronic absenteeism to be disturbingly high across the district.

Truancy was far and away the most prevalent in high schools, where 49 percent of students missed 18 or more days during 2014-15 – up 8 percent over the last three years. Fast Track Academy and Newark Leadership Academy, two alternative high schools, had the highest rates at 92 and 84 percent, respectively, while  Weequahic High School and West Side High School each came in at 74 percent.

Elementary schools claim much lower rates, though they were still significant enough to cause alarm.

The study pegged the rate throughout the district at 22 percent, an uptick of 4 percent since 2011-12. The Speedway Academies, in the city's West Ward, claimed the highest rate at 42 percent.

Although relatively consistent with rates over the last five years, the increases  come despite targeted efforts over recent years to reduce what has been called an "epidemic" in Newark schools.

In 2013, after a study found that the average child in the district missed more than 15 days of instruction the prior school year, then-superintendent Cami Anderson kicked off an initiative aimed at cutting rates in half.

Entitled "Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow" the program moved away from punitive measures and toward a more rehabilitative approach toward offenders. Principals were required to work with community members and other district employees who could reach consistently truant students to create a personal accountability plan to increase attendance.

Prior to introducing the plan, the district had laid off 46 attendance counselors charged with locating students who were absent and unaccounted for. Last week, a an administrative law judge ruled that the layoffs violated civil service law, giving State Education Commissioner David Hespe 45 days to decide whether to restore the positions.

It is unclear whether the counselors might fit into new plans to address what has become a persistent issue in the state-controlled district.

Much of that work will fall to the Attendance Committee, though Cerf said programs aimed at reengaging floundering students, such as the so-called "Community Schools Initiative" in the city's South Ward, are already in the works.

Whatever direction officials ultimately take, Advocates for Children of New Jersey Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind, one of the committee's 12 members, said the numbers uncovered by the organization's report represented an urgent "call-to-action."

"The best response to research is action, and this is what we are committed to do in the weeks and months ahead," she said.

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