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 [email protected]

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.