Newark's Absenteeism Crisis

Another year, another Newark attendance campaign. Can León succeed where others have failed?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Like his predecessors, Superintendent Roger León is taking on Newark's "epidemic" of absenteeism. It won't be easy.

As the final days of summer melted away last month and Newark families began stuffing backpacks and straightening uniforms, district officials commenced their own back-to-school tradition: They launched a new attendance campaign.

In late August, the new superintendent, Roger León, summoned the district’s entire workforce to a hockey arena to announce, among other initiatives, a plan to achieve perfect attendance in every school — an audacious and improbable goal in any district but especially so in a system where nearly one in three students is considered chronically absent. It’s part of an age-old battle — as well as a new push locally and nationally — to ensure students show up daily for class.

Before long, families were fielding calls from district employees, who had each been assigned five households to remind of the school year’s Sept. 4 start date, and from León himself, who recorded a back-to-school message. At a local principal’s request, the manager of a ShopRite supermarket even spread the word over his store’s loudspeaker.

“We want to make sure that students come to school everyday,” León told reporters after August’s all-staff meeting. “Every day matters.”

Nationwide, districts are trying to boost attendance this school year — raffling off gift cards and even cars for perfect attendance and conducting home visits — as states, including New Jersey, begin factoring absenteeism rates into school and district ratings under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed new legislation requiring schools where 10 percent or more of students are chronically absent to create corrective plans. In Newark, 62 of 64 district schools had absenteeism rates that high in the 2016-17 school year, the latest for which data is publicly available.

The nationwide crackdown on absenteeism is backed by extensive research showing that students who are chronically absent — typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the days in a single school year for any reason — are at serious risk of having lower grades and test scores, dropping out of school, and becoming ensnared in the juvenile-justice system. Low-income students, who make up three-fourths of Newark’s enrollment, are among the most likely to miss school.


But as León, a 25-year Newark Public Schools veteran who became superintendent on July 1, is sure to find, recognizing an attendance problem is one matter — solving it is quite another.

His two immediate predecessors also launched ambitious campaigns to improve attendance. But as they tried to slash through the thicket of obstacles that keep students from school — problems with health and housing, transportation and school culture — both watched their initiatives to combat absenteeism fizzle as school employees struggled to carry out the plans.

Indeed, by the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district’s chronic absenteeism rate was actually higher than in 2011-12, when the first of León’s two predecessors took the reins. Whether León will learn from their mistakes — or fall into similar traps — remains to be seen.

“The bottom line is that the superintendent can say whatever he wants,” said Pastor Van Ness Roper of True Deliverance Christian Life Church, an education advocate who was recruited to help with the first attendance campaign. “But if your staff and those you give the plan to don’t implement it, it’s just a wasted idea.”

Big ambitions, disappointing results

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched a campaign called “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow.”

Five years ago, Newark’s then-state appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, declared an absenteeism “epidemic” and insisted she had the cure.

Like León would later do, she unveiled an attendance campaign at the start of the 2013-14 school year with a lofty goal — to cut absenteeism in half within three years. If successful, the campaign, called “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow,” would expose students to 1 million hours of learning they would have otherwise missed, Anderson said.

Before school started, district officials asked religious leaders to adopt schools and bodegas to stop selling snacks to students during school hours. They asked community-based organizations to post back-to-school flyers and call families using scripts the district provided.

But almost immediately, the plan ran into challenges.

Three former Anderson officials said her administration struggled to stay focused on the campaign as they scrambled to enact a host of other sweeping policy changes — including a district overhaul Anderson announced in December 2013, which sparked widespread protests.

Amid that backlash, some community and parent leaders were reluctant to support Anderson’s attendance drive, even though it was relatively uncontroversial. Meanwhile, school leaders were hard pressed to meet the demands of the new campaign — which involved creating attendance plans, developing reward programs, scheduling community events, and following up with frequently absent students — without the help of attendance counselors, whom Anderson had laid off that July as a cost-cutting measure.

“There was no systemic way to deal with the attendance issue after she got rid of the attendance counselors,” said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, a school board member at the time who is now the mayor’s education advisor. “Somebody has to be responsible who doesn’t have 100 other responsibilities.”

Officials at the time said the counselors had done little to combat absenteeism and insisted that principals and teachers needed to play a bigger role in raising attendance. But Anderson’s campaign also appeared to have a limited impact — rather than falling by 50 percent as projected, the chronic absenteeism rate was basically unchanged after three years.

Meanwhile, the firing of the 46 attendance counselors would continue to dog Anderson. In 2016, an administrative law judge sided with the Newark Teachers Union in a lawsuit challenging the layoffs, though the state education commissioner later overturned that decision. And during an earlier legislative hearing, a state lawmaker argued that the layoffs had doomed Anderson’s attendance plan from the start.

“You don’t gut out the social support network in a system like Newark,” said former Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, now Murphy’s lieutenant governor, at the Jan. 2015 hearing, “and anticipate that we’re going to have great improvements.”

Fine-tuned policies amid daunting obstacles

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Former Superintendent Christopher Cerf (center, in purple tie) aimed for better implementation of the district’s attendance policies.

Three years after the launch of Anderson’s attendance campaign, she was replaced by a new superintendent, Christopher Cerf, who in an instance of district déjà vu, newly declared absenteeism “an issue of crisis proportions” in Newark’s schools.

At an Oct. 2016 school board meeting, he said the crisis did not stem from a lack of attendance policies. For example, teachers were required to record daily attendance by 10 a.m., and schools were to call, write, and finally meet with families as absences accumulated. The problem with these plans, Cerf said, was the lack of follow-through.

“We do not believe those policies and procedures have been consistently implemented,” he said at the board meeting, “and that is on us.”

His administration set out to fix that.

Teachers were urged to take daily attendance so that schools would have reliable data to analyze. “School support teams” — the group of employees in every school who had inherited the tasks of the fired attendance counselors — were asked to review the data and come up with rewards and interventions. High schools had to establish daily “advisory” periods when faculty members would meet with a small group of students — an effort to forge personal connections strong enough to draw teenagers to school.

But a program that the district piloted during that same period, modeled off one used in New York City, suggested that schools also need more supports — not just better policy implementation — to reverse patterns of absenteeism.

At five South Ward schools that had been outfitted with extra social services through a “community schools” initiative, part-time “success mentors” were hired to work closely with students who were repeatedly absent and with their families.

Early data showed the mentors were having a positive impact on attendance — so much so that officials had hoped to place mentors in additional schools, said Brad Haggerty, Cerf’s chief innovation officer, adding that Cerf stepped down in February before the additional mentors were added. The planned expansion was a tacit acknowledgement that schools needed more people-power to curb absenteeism.

“That’s the direction we were going in — to give more people resources,” Haggerty said, adding a caveat that he believes extra personnel dedicated to attendance will only be effective if school-based teams share in the work. “You’re not going to solve that with one person.”

And some barriers to attendance go beyond policies and resources. In 2016 and 2017, the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey published reports based on interviews with students, parents, and educators that explored the tangle of factors behind Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate, which exceeds the level even in other high-poverty New Jersey districts.

Among younger students, the causes included high asthma rates and a lack of busing for students who live less than two miles from school. Among high schoolers, boring classes, long or dangerous commutes, and adult responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or holding down jobs were cited. One student told the researchers: “I’ve gotta go out and make money. I’ll worry about school tomorrow.”

“You can’t simply mandate your way out of these kinds of issues,” said Peter Chen, who co-authored the reports with Cynthia Rice. For instance, the district can set a deadline for submitting daily attendance, he added, “But that’s not going to suddenly make students live closer to schools or their asthma go away or not have to work a job to support their family.”

A ‘refreshing’ promise to send backup

Superintendent León called his back-to-school campaign “Give Me Five!”

If one lesson of the past five years is the stubbornness of the district’s absenteeism problem, Newark’s new superintendent appears undaunted.

Superintendent León has set a goal of every school reaching 100 percent attendance. (Experts caution against focusing solely on attendance rates, noting that schools with high average daily attendance can still have a core group of chronically absent students.) For now, he sees his role as largely that of a cheerleader, but aims to provide more personnel in time.

“Right now, what we do is, we say, ‘The objective’s high — you figure out how to get there,’” he said in a recent interview.

He has promised to restore the attendance counselors — a move welcomed by many educators and community leaders. But, in a nod to the past, where the presence of counselors often did little to improve attendance, he insisted that schools must partner with these counselors rather than simply outsource attendance efforts to them.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” he said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

León pointed to his back-to-school campaign as an early success, saying this year’s first-day attendance rate was higher than last year’s. The real test, however, will be whether schools can maintain any initial gains throughout the year — when rates tend to sag — while at the same time driving down chronic absenteeism among the third of students who miss roughly a month or more of class each year.

Already, some educators say they are heartened by León’s early moves. Maria Ortiz, principal of Luis Muñoz Marin School, said the message conveyed by the back-to-school campaign and attendance counselors is that the district leadership is committed to helping schools improve attendance, rather than simply ordering them to do so.

“I don’t feel like we’re doing this alone,” she said, “which is really refreshing.”

In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will dig deeper into Newark’s absenteeism crisis. Do you have questions you want answered? Thoughts on what causes students to miss school? Or promising attendance practices you want to highlight? If so, please take this brief survey. You can also email me at pwall@chalkbeat.org.

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation. 

Read Chicago’s full response below.



on the move

Lack of transportation, conflicting deadlines put school choice out of reach for some, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

More Colorado students use school choice to opt into traditional district-run schools than use it to attend charter schools. Those who do so are more likely to be white and middle- or upper-class than their peers. And transportation continues to be a barrier for students who want to go somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

Those are the findings of a report on choice and open enrollment in the traditional public school sector put out by Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform advocacy group that supports greater access to school choice.

The report, “Open Doors, Open Districts,” looked at the roughly 49,800 Colorado students who attended school in a district other than the one in which they resided during the 2016-17 school year and another 95,600 who used school choice within the 12 largest districts in the state. Together, these 145,400 students make up roughly 16 percent of all Colorado students. Another 13 percent of state students attend charter schools.

Since 1990, the School Choice Act has allowed students to enroll in any public school they want, without paying tuition, provided there is room — and that the school provides the services that student needs, a sticking point for many students who require special education services.

The number of students using this system to attend school in another district increased 58 percent over 10 years to 49,800 in 2016. Roughly 6,000 of those students attend multi-district online schools.

The students taking advantage of inter-district open enrollment are more likely to be white than Colorado students as a whole — 58 percent are white compared with 54 percent of all students. They’re also less likely to come from low-income families (36 percent, compared with 42 percent of all students), to speak a language other than English at home (8 percent compared with 14 percent statewide), or to have a disability (8 percent compared with 11 percent).

“It is important to understand these differences so that policy leaders and educators can work to ensure that open enrollment opportunities are more accessible for all Colorado families,” the report said. “The underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino students and English learners suggests there may be some unmet needs in Spanish-speaking communities around inter-district choice — either in information, accessibility, or appropriate services for students.”

The report highlights two major barriers to more students using school choice.

Most districts don’t have the kind of common enrollment system that Denver pioneered or that Jeffco is rolling out each year. Most districts require parents to turn in paperwork at a particular school. Not only do districts not share the same deadlines as each other, often different schools in the same district have different deadlines.

The other is transportation. 

“Time spent driving students to school can conflict with work schedules for parents, and public transit options can be scarce in many areas, making open enrollment functionally impossible for families without a transportation solution,” the report said. In one rural district, a group of parents banded together and hired their own school bus to take students to another district.

A bill sponsored last year by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, would have addressed both issues, encouraging the creation of more consistent deadlines across the state and allowing districts to cross boundaries to provide transportation. That bill was defeated in the Democratic-controlled House after some school districts said it would set the stage for larger, wealthier districts to poach students.

The transportation provision was later added to an unrelated bill in the final days of the session, a move that led to a lawsuit in which a judicial decision is pending.

Democrats now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and it’s not clear how any attempts to expand school choice would fare. Both school choice and charter schools have enjoyed bipartisan but not universal support in Colorado.

By highlighting the prominence of traditional public schools in how Colorado students use the choice system, advocates hope to separate choice and the popular idea that parents should be able to find the school that best meets their child’s needs from the more divisive debate about charter schools, which critics see as siphoning scarce dollars from other schools while not serving all students.

The report recommends developing more consistency between and within districts, providing more information to parents, and removing barriers to transportation.

Districts with higher ratings, which are determined primarily by results on standardized tests, tend to get more students than those with lower ratings, but some districts, particularly in the Denver metro area, send and receive large numbers of students, reflecting that parents and students are making decisions at the school rather than at the district level.

Metro area districts that have struggled to raise student achievement are losing large numbers of students to other districts. A quarter of students who live in Adams 14, whose low test scores prompted a state order for external management, attended school in neighboring districts in 2016. In Westminster, which just came off a state watchlist for low-performing schools this year, that number was 29 percent.

Ready Colorado found no clear relationship between districts that spent more per student and districts that attracted more students — but districts with higher enrollment get more money from the state for each student, creating incentives to compete for students.

Read the full report here.