Showing Up Matters

By Adrienne Hill, Peter Chen, and Cynthia Rice

A new school year often represents a fresh start for learning. But in the Garden State, far too many students will not reach their full potential due to excessive absences. 

Kids who miss two or more days during the first month of school are more likely to have poor attendance throughout the year. That’s why September is the ideal time for districts to identify students at risk, intervene early, and take proactive measures to help them get back on track. By coming up with practical and sensible strategies, schools can see a measurable difference.

More than one in 10 New Jersey students were chronically absent during the 2014-15 school year – roughly 136,000 kids in total, according to a new report released Wednesday by Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ). That means they missed 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days of instruction, including excused and unexcused absences.

Plain and simple, when kids don’t show up for class, they don’t learn. And these absences correlate with poor performance at every grade level.

ACNJ’s report, “Showing Up Matters: The State of Chronic Absenteeism in New Jersey,” highlights efforts across the state where school officials are making student attendance a priority. Hedgepeth/Williams Middle School for the Arts in Trenton is just one example.

In the fall of 2015, the school leadership team was shocked to find out that nearly a quarter of the middle-schoolers were already chronically absent. This set off a red flag and staff came together to develop a strategy. 

According to data collected from the New Jersey Department of Education, groups that are at higher risk for absenteeism include children of color, children from low-income families and children in special education. Hedgepeth/Williams has high rates in all three categories.

Here’s what the school did:

First, the leadership team took deliberate steps to make Hedgepeth/Williams the school where kids wanted to be. With a welcoming environment and emphasis on making every day count, the school’s motto became “Be present, be punctual, be prepared and be promoted.” Students began to have more input in the everyday events at the school and incentives were given to kids with good or improved attendance.

Second, an attendance team was created to monitor students’ attendance and develop interventions. Some interventions included identifying and connecting with individual staff members who became their mentors. The team also sent letters to parents and “We Miss You” postcards to chronically absent students.

Third, officials set the stage for accountability. Students with excessive absences would now have consequences, including the possibility of repeating a grade. At the same time, staff worked to help reduce the underlying issues that often impact attendance. For example, Hedgepeth/Williams offered online English classes to parents who in the past had taken their children out of school to translate at doctors’ appointments or meetings.

During one month, Hedgepeth/Williams’ absenteeism rate fell to just seven percent down from 22 percent. The work at the school is far from over, but these steps demonstrate that progress is possible.

In honor of Attendance Awareness Month, we encourage school districts to take a closer look at their attendance numbers to see how many students are missing 10 percent or more of school days and who they are. The key step is not only letting families know about the critical role they play in getting children to school on time every day, but also understanding and taking steps to reduce those barriers.
Join us in our effort to make every day count.

Adrienne Hill is principal of the Hedgepeth/Williams Middle School for the Arts. Peter Chen is a Skadden Fellow and Cynthia Rice is a senior policy analyst at Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

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