chronically absent

Newark’s absenteeism problem persists as thousands of students miss several days this year, new data show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León addressed ninth-graders in September. That month, about 30 percent of those students were considered "chronically absent."

Thousands of Newark students have already missed multiple school days this year, newly released data show, even as the district’s new superintendent makes improving attendance a top priority.

About one in five students missed more than a week’s worth of class during the first three months of school, according to the district data. Those roughly 8,000 students are already considered “chronically absent.”

Newark has long grappled with exceptionally high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in an academic year for any reason. Students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and greater odds of getting in trouble with the law.

The district’s new superintendent, Roger León, has promised to attack the issue — even going so far as to set a district goal of 100 percent attendance. But the new data, which León released this week, show how far the district has to go.

Nearly 9 percent of of the district’s 36,000 students have already missed the equivalent of more than two school weeks, according to the data. Those 3,200 or so students are labeled “severely chronically absent.”

Experts say that tracking and publicizing attendance data, as León has done, is the first step in combating absenteeism. Now, some district leaders are calling for the next phase of work to begin — analyzing why so many students are missing class and taking steps at the district and school level to help get them to school.

“It’s great that we have all this great data,” Newark Board of Education member Kim Gaddy said at a board meeting last month. “But if you have the data and you’re not using the data to change the situation, we won’t do any justice to our children in this district.”

Students who missed six or more school days from September through November qualify as chronically absent. If they continue at that pace, they are on track to miss the equivalent of a month or more of school by June. Students who missed 10.5 days or more during those three months count as severely chronically absent.

Attendance from Sept. to Nov. 2018. | Green = absent 0-2.5 days | Yellow = absent 3-5.5 days | Orange = absent 6-10 days | Red = absent 10.5 or more days. | Credit: Newark Public Schools

The early data show that Newark’s long-standing absenteeism patterns are continuing. The chronic absenteeism rates over the past three months were about the same as in 2016, according to the data.

The problem remains most acute among the district’s youngest and oldest students: 41 percent of pre-kindergarteners were chronically absent this November, as were 45 percent of 12th-graders. At least a third of students at five high schools — Barringer, Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, Weequahic, and West Side — were severely chronically absent last month.

While absenteeism rates varied among schools, they tended to be highest in the city’s impoverished South Ward.

“I’m concerned particularly about the South Ward,” Gaddy said at the Nov. 20 board meeting. “That’s where our children need the most assistance.”

León, a former principal who became schools chief on July 1, has already taken some early steps to improve attendance.

His most visible effort was a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five,” where he ordered every district employee to call five families before the first day of school. The campaign, for which León himself recorded robocalls to families, appears to have made a difference: 91 percent of students showed up the first day, the highest rate of the past four years, according to district data. (In 2013, when former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched her own attendance campaign, about 94 percent of students attended school the first day.)

The district also eliminated some early-dismissal days, which typically have low attendance. And students with mid-level test scores whom León has targeted for extra support have had better attendance this year than their peers, officials said.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = 0-0.5 days absent | Yellow = 1-1.5 days absent | Orange = 2-2.5 days absent | Red = 3 or more days absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

However, León hit a snag trying to enact the crux of his attendance plan — reinstating more than 40 attendance counselors whom Anderson laid off years ago to cut costs. The state’s civil service commission has said the district must offer the jobs to the laid-off counselors before hiring anyone new, León told the board — forcing the district to track down former employees who, in some cases, have moved to different states. Only eight counselors have been hired to date, but León said he hopes to fill the remaining positions next month.

Meanwhile, León is arguing that some of the responsibility for improving attendance falls on families. At November’s board meeting, he said some parents and guardians “believe that, in fact, they can keep their children home” from school. At a parent conference this month, he took that message directly to families.

“I don’t care if school ends at 10 and they’re only going to come for an hour, and half an hour is on a bus,” he told several hundred parents who showed up for the daylong summit. “When I tell you that your child is coming to school, it’s your job to make sure the child comes to school.”

Afterwards, several parents and school employees said they welcomed León’s tough talk on attendance.

“It was about parents ensuring kids are in school and they are doing good,” said Bilikis Oseni, who has a child in first grade at Camden Street School. “Attendance is very key.”

Still, Newark families face many obstacles in getting their children to school, according to a 2016 report on chronic absenteeism among young students. Parents cited a lack of school busing, asthma and other childhood health problems, and work schedules that make it hard to drop off their children in the morning. High school students listed uninspiring classes, mental-health challenges, and safety concerns when traveling to school as reasons why they don’t show up, according to a 2017 report.

At the November board meeting, several members asked León whether he planned to dig deeper into the causes of absenteeism.

“I was looking through all the statistics here in the packet,” said Andre Ferreira, the board’s student representative, who attends Science Park High School. “But there were none that looked towards having a survey of students themselves telling you why they aren’t coming to school.”

León noted that he held forums with high-school students in September where he stressed the importance of showing up. He also said he has a student-only email address that some students have used to explain why they miss school.

“So I’m gathering data that lets me know why a particular student in fact hasn’t been to school,” he said. “Ultimately, we would have to do that for every single student, in every classroom, in every grade, in every school. That’s really the work — and it’s hard to do.”

Peter Chen, who co-authored the two reports on chronic absenteeism in Newark, said the superintendent had taken a crucial first step by raising awareness about the city’s attendance challenges. The district also appears to be sharing attendance data more regularly with schools, he said.

The next step is for the district to help schools identify and assist students who are chronically absent. The central office can do that by sharing effective attendance strategies, training school workers on how to support students’ social and emotional well-being, and offering grants to fund schools’ own attendance campaigns, he added.

“This is something that requires tailored, school-level responses,” said Chen, who is a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “The district can help support some of that — but it’s not something that’s easy to impose from on high.”

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has made a flurry of policy changes since starting in July. But some observers still aren't clear about his overall vision.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”

chalkbeat cheat sheet

All eyes are on Denver’s teacher pay negotiations as a strike looms. Here’s where things stand and how to tune in.

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating for more than a year against a backdrop of widespread protests over teacher pay.

Now, the union is inching toward a strike.

The issues at play are narrower than they are in Los Angeles, where teachers are striking over pay but also class sizes and school resources. In Denver, the union and district agreed on a general contract last year. Now, the sides are focused on the district’s complicated pay-for-performance system, with the union pushing for higher salaries and more opportunities for raises.

The union says it will call for a strike vote on Saturday if a new agreement can’t be reached.

In the meantime, negotiations in Denver are particularly interesting because state law requires bargaining to happen in public. If you’re just getting caught up, or want to tune in as the back-and-forth continues, here’s what you should know.

When are the union and district set to negotiate, and how can I watch?

There are two more sessions on the schedule:

  • Thursday, Jan. 17, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
  • Friday, Jan. 18, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

Both sessions will take place at the Acoma Campus, at 1617 S. Acoma St., and are open to the public.

You can also watch online. The district often livestreams the negotiations — here’s where you can find them. It doesn’t always, because doing so takes staff time.

If the district isn’t livestreaming, the union will set up a Facebook Live with a cell phone and a tripod, but it will be of lower quality. Here’s the union’s Facebook page.

If you don’t see anything in either place, it probably means the two sides are caucusing, or meeting in private. Those meetings aren’t streamed.

If you tune in, you’ll see members of both negotiating teams. The union’s team includes Pam Shamburg, Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s executive director; Corey Kern, DCTA’s deputy executive director; Henry Roman, DCTA’s president; Rob Gould, a Denver teacher; and several other teachers.

The district’s negotiation team includes Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer; Susana Cordova, superintendent; and Michelle Berge, general counsel.

What are the union and district at odds over?

The two sides are negotiating the contract that governs the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable. It pays teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position.

But giving up the incentives altogether would mean giving up tax money raised specifically for teacher salaries. In 2005, Denver voters passed a tax increase to fund ProComp, and the ballot language was specific about how the tax revenue would be used, including to pay teachers for things like working in hard-to-fill positions, increasing their teaching skills, and earning positive evaluations. District officials project the tax will raise $33 million next year.

Where do things stand?

The timing: The current agreement is set to expire Friday, and union leaders have said they will call for a strike vote on Saturday if a new agreement cannot be reached.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association informed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment on Jan. 8 of its intent to strike. A union must give the state 20 days notice, which means the earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28.

The basics: The biggest sticking point is money. Buoyed by widespread protests over teacher pay in Colorado and other states, the Denver union has asked the district to invest about $30 million more of its $1 billion budget into teacher compensation.

The district’s offer as of Jan. 11 would invest $23 million more into teacher pay. District officials have said some of that money will come from increased state funding, but $7 million would come from cuts to the district’s central office, where many administrators work.

The salary schedule: The union has proposed returning to a more traditional salary schedule. The maximum base salary would be $100,000, which a teacher with a doctorate could earn after  20 years of positive evaluations.

After offering less than that for months, the district’s Jan. 11 proposal matched that $100,000 maximum base salary. Earning it would require a teacher with a doctorate to have 30 years of positive evaluations.

The base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree on the district’s schedule as of Jan. 11 would be $45,500. The union’s schedule would start at $45,000.

The union’s salary schedule differs from the one the district has proposed in one major way: it has more “lanes,” which allow teachers to get raises more frequently.

The “lanes” represent a teacher’s education level. The salary schedule also has “steps,” which represent a teacher’s years of satisfactory evaluations.

The union’s proposed salary schedule has nine “lanes” and 20 “steps.” The district’s Jan. 11 offer has only six “lanes” but 30 “steps.” In the union’s view, the district’s offer doesn’t give teachers enough of a salary boost for furthering their own education.

The district’s proposal is an attempt to diversify the ways teachers can get a pay raise. Teachers could move a lane by getting an advanced license or serving for 10 consecutive years, in addition to earning a higher degree or National Board certification.

Contract talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for steps and lanes. Negotiations that were scheduled for all day ended before lunch as district negotiators regrouped. District officials say they want a counterproposal from the union, while the union says the ball is still in the district’s court.

About those bonuses: The district and the union also disagree on the size of the bonuses and incentives. The union favors larger base salaries and smaller incentives, with some as small as $1,000.

The district has proposed three different incentives at $2,500 each. One would be for teachers who work in high-poverty schools, where more than 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Another would be for teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, such as special education and secondary math, and teachers who teach in Spanish.

The third $2,500 incentive would be in the form of a retention bonus for teachers who return to work at a set of 30 schools the district and the union deem “highest priority.”

About 72 percent of Denver teachers would qualify for one of the two $2,500 incentives, district officials said on Jan. 11. About 37 of those same teachers would qualify for both incentives.

A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree who gets both incentives — say, a first-year special education teacher in a high-poverty school — could make $50,500 under the district’s proposal.

How did we get here?

Here is a timeline if you’re looking to dive even deeper.