School districts throughout the state are finding new and innovative ways to reduce their chronic absenteeism rates.

A student is chronically absent if 10% or more of the school days are missed – which for most districts is 18 days, or about two days per month. Chronic absenteeism leads to lower test scores, learning loss and may indicate students are worried about bad grades, bullying, or troubles at home, according to the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

New Jersey’s chronic absentee rate of 18.1% is well below the national average of 29.7%, according to 2021-2022 figures released by the state and United States departments of education. But the state’s numbers are still 8% higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and shattered routines.

“We still have work to do,” said Cynthia Rice, senior policy analyst for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, who said school board members need to realize how important attendance is to student success. “You have to make this as important as how you implement curriculum, because no matter how good your classroom quality is, if you don’t have kids in those seats, it’s not going to make a difference.” 

In recent interviews with School Leader, superintendents and administrators who have achieved better results shared the secrets of their success.

Using data to drive results. In Newark, administrators used data to drop the district’s chronic absentee rate by nearly 15%. The district found that about 1,800 students were missing between 17 and 25 days of school each year – hovering slightly below or over the 18-day mark that would make them “chronically absent,” said Edwin Mendez, director of attendance.

Each of these students was assigned an “attendance buddy,” Mendez said. School counselors, principals, teachers, parents, case workers and others were drafted to make personal contact with targeted students. 

Next, the district examined data from previous years to see which days students were most likely to miss class. Fridays were bad days for attendance. So was Halloween, the day before Thanksgiving, the day before break and many days in June. Special efforts were made to remind students how important it was to be in school on those days. 

In addition to reminders, the district used incentives. Students who wanted their yearbooks early had to show up every day the week before the books were distributed, and the yearbooks were handed out on Friday, to help bolster a low-attendance day. 

“We had festivals, we had parties, we had assemblies, giveaways, we had movies, popcorn, food … anything you can think of to motivate a student to come to school,” Mendez said. The district also invested in technology to ensure absences were recorded accurately. 

“Students scan in when they’re late. If a homeroom teacher already marked that student absent, that absence will be converted to a ‘tardy,’” Mendez said. 

The results: Earlier this year, when the state released Newark’s numbers for 2021-2022, it showed a chronic absentee rate of 28.1%. Next year, based on the latest 2022-2023 figures, the chronic absentee rate will be 13.2%, Mendez said.

March Madness and other incentives In Passaic, Superintendent Dr. Sandra Montanez-Diodonet assembled an Attendance Review Committee that monitors chronic absenteeism closely, and she found innovative ways to use the data.

For example, using the data, schools take part in a “March Madness” competition, based on college basketball’s annual tournament. Schools face off in brackets and advance when their absentee rate is better.

At the Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark, Superintendent Angela Mincy says students with either perfect or “greatly improved” attendance get to spin a wheel every month. Students can win prizes donated by the community as a reward, Mincy said. The top prize so far has been a Sony PlayStation 5.

Last year, the charter school had a chronic absentee rate of 49.2% for the 2021-2022 school year, according to state figures. When new results for 2022-2023 are released next year, the district’s chronic absentee rate will decrease to 34.2% — a drop of 15%.

In addition to prizes and incentives, Mincy said the district sends a personalized letter home to every parent, saying how many days the student has missed. The letters are accompanied by a robocall to the students’ homes, telling parents to watch for it.

Videos in students’ native language To combat chronic absenteeism in her 3,200-student district in Hunterdon County, Flemington-Raritan Superintendent Dr. Kari McGann convinced most parents to agree to receive mobile text messages whenever their children missed school.

When middle school students said they were stuck at home because they had to help younger elementary school students catch a later bus, McGann’s middle school principals arranged Lyft rides so the older kids could also get to class.

As immigrants find new homes in New Jersey, McGann discovered another issue. While text messages and letters are an effective way to communicate with some parents, some students arriving in the district from Ecuador could not read or write – in English or their native language. 

The solution? Video messages, recorded in their native language, posted on a special Facebook page, and also sent through bilingual agencies affiliated with the United Way.

Somerville saves money, provides services – and increases attendance The Motivation for Academic and Personal Success program is an alternative high school, started eight years ago by Dr. Timothy J. Purnell, who was Somerville’s superintendent at the time and is now the executive director and CEO of the New Jersey School Boards Association. 

Students who weren’t thriving in the traditional academic program also weren’t attending school, said Dr. Tanya McDonald, Somerville’s director of special services. As it sought to boost attendance, the district discovered something else. By bringing back six students from expensive out-of-district placements, Somerville could still serve those students and also pay for an alternative high school that would provide a high-quality education to as many as 40 students in need of extra services and motivation.

McDonald said the school’s impact on student attendance has been impressive. When the MAPS school in Somerset County began, attendance for those students improved 61%. The school has graduated 90 students since its inception. 

MAPS principal Scott Hade said teachers are selected for their “ability to connect to life circumstances, and things that matter to the students, so they can see the relevance and importance” of what they’re learning. A therapy dog, Jeter Rose, also encourages the children to come to school.

In Union City, a sense of community helps students succeed Silvia Abbato was appointed as the first Latina superintendent of her 96% Hispanic district about 10 years ago, and she knows what it takes to convince students to attend class. One-third of her 13,000 students aren’t fluent in English; 45% are at risk and 84% are economically disadvantaged. 

Abbato knows the many challenges her students are facing. As a 9-year-old immigrant arriving in Union City from Cuba, she spoke no English. Her parents were respected educators in Cuba and worked in menial jobs while attending school at night to establish their academic credentials in the United States. 

When she first taught in the Union City school district, Abbato covered holes in the crumbling walls with posters. She is thrilled to see how much the district has improved and that others are also getting the chance to live the American dream.

She tells the story of a young boy, Ramzi Saber, who came from Morocco with his mother, Ilham Chermane.

“He talked her into coming to the U.S., although they had no family here,” Abbato said. Ilham wanted to turn around at the airport and go home, but Ramzi insisted. They arrived in the United States and found refuge in Union City, where Ramzi flourished in the school district, and his mother found a job as an aide. As a high school freshman, Ramzi used mathematics to discover a new planet in a distant solar system. His discovery won awards and helped him earn a full scholarship to the California Institute of Technology, where he is currently working on a project for NASA, Abbato said. 

Union City students receive free breakfast, lunch and some extended programs also include dinner. The district maintains a daycare center for the infants of current students to provide support and help keep those students in school. Abbato said regularly attending school brings a necessary order and regimen to her students’ young lives. 

Improving bus service and breakfast In an email, Superintendent Anne Mucci of the Morris School District outlined what steps the district had taken to improve attendance:

We increased bus service for areas in the district where we noticed clusters of chronically absent students.

We switched our breakfast service from grab and go to sit-down service in the cafeteria, increasing the quality of the breakfast choices and allowing the students to start their day with social time with their peers. 

We tightened our attendance policy in accordance with state law and reviewed it at all of our fall meetings with families; our primary focus was on limiting unnecessary absences. 

We designed reminder attendance letters to be automatically sent to families when their child is accruing unexcused absences.

What the focus should be Rice, the policy analyst from the Association for Children of New Jersey, summarized what school board members need to know. Focus on chronic absenteeism, not daily attendance figures, she said, to get an accurate picture of which students are in trouble. Develop relationships with students and families.

“You can’t abolish chronic absenteeism,” she said. “But you can make progress and help those kids.”

Alan Guenther is the retired assistant editor for the NJSBA.