Early data show attendance gains in Newark, amid district push to combat absenteeism

Fewer Newark students are missing many days of school, according to new district data, which offers a hopeful sign to officials working to drive down the district’s high absenteeism rate.

Just over 24 percent of Newark students qualified as “chronically absent” from September to May this year, according to data that Superintendent Roger León presented to the state board of education last week. That represents a 5.4 percentage point improvement from the same period last school year, León said.

The reduction translates into roughly 2,100 fewer chronically absent students — those who miss 10 percent or more of school days, or at least 18 days, in a given year for any reason. Students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and a greater risk of getting in trouble with the law.

The district also made progress on its average daily attendance rate, or the share of students who show up to school each day. It averaged 91 percent through May, León said, compared to 86 percent last school year.

León shared the attendance statistics during the district’s annual report to the state board of education, which voted in 2017 to begin the process of releasing Newark schools from state control. If Newark meets all of the state’s requirements, the city’s elected school board will regain full authority over the district in February 2020.

This year’s final absenteeism and attendance rates could still change, as the data León cited does not include June. And experts cautioned that chronic absenteeism rates often vary from year to year for reasons that can be difficult to pinpoint — school practices can affect attendance, but so can weather patterns, for instance.

Still, if this year’s attendance gains continue through June, the district is on pace to achieve its lowest chronic absenteeism rate in at least four years. That would be a notable achievement for León, who promised to boost student attendance after he became superintendent last year.

“Our students are coming to school,” León said at the June 5 board meeting. “And they are coming to school this year in numbers we have in fact not seen before.”

State officials, who have been closely monitoring Newark’s progress over the past year, said they were impressed by the data León presented and the preview he gave of his district plan for next school year, which he will unveil Thursday.

“Newark has seemed to hit the ground running,” said state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet at the board meeting. “I’m very encouraged with the city of Newark.”

Newark has long struggled with attendance. Last year, its share of chronically absent students was about three times the statewide average. More than a third of Newark students missed the equivalent of more than three weeks of class last year, according to state data.

A sample of the new interactive “dashboards” that school staffers can use to dig into their attendance data.

León, who started as superintendent in July, has made improving attendance a top priority. Last summer, he launched a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five.” It required each district employee, from custodians to assistant superintendents, to call the families of five students to urge them to show up to school the first day.

This winter, he hired more than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers whose job is to contact families and track down missing students. A previous superintendent had laid off the attendance workers amid budget constraints and questions about their effectiveness.

The district also created interactive “dashboards” that allow principals and school staffers to dig into real-time attendance data. The program shows the attendance patterns of different grades at a given school, the reported reasons why students were absent, and how that school’s attendance compares with others’. It also provides the attendance records and other information about individual students.

“It provides information at the principal’s fingertips,” León said at the board meeting. “So we can assess: We have a problem, what we’re doing, is it working? Does it makes sense? Do we need to make changes?”

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey who has studied chronic absenteeism in Newark, called the new data dashboards a “very powerful tool” for schools to improve attendance.

He said the district’s reduction in chronic absenteeism this year is encouraging. But he also noted that year-to-year swings in absenteeism are common, adding that it is crucial for the district to analyze what drove this year’s changes.

“It’s a positive step — it’s what we want to see,” Chen said. “But it’s also important to track over a longer period and to take a closer look at the data to see where are the absences still coming from and why were there fewer absences this year rather than last year.”