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]

capital crunch

As New York City’s public housing crumbles, pre-K centers go without crucial repairs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Yvette Ho, right, taps out a request to NYCHA to fix a leaky roof at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center. Meanwhile, a student shows her art project to Mary Cheng, who oversees early childhood programs for the Chinese-American Planning Council, a nonprofit that runs the daycare.

The tables where children would normally play had been dragged to create a makeshift barrier, blocking the 3- and 4-year olds from their favorite centers and from a growing puddle on the floor.

The ceiling at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center in the East Village was leaking again.

Center director Yvette Ho rushed to the classroom to survey the damage. On her phone, she tapped out a repair request to the landlord — NYCHA, New York City’s public housing authority.

“This is the perennial leak,” she said. “Just when you think it’s fixed, it comes back again.”

Decades of divestment, neglect, and mismanagement have left NYCHA buildings crumbling, forcing the city to give up some of its control of the housing authority to a federal overseer in an agreement struck last month. The plight of residents has been well documented in media reports and a scathing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which uncovered out-of-service elevators, faulty heaters, and health hazards like rodent infestations, mold, and lead paint.

But few realize that nestled within those buildings are about 100 child care centers that serve infants and toddlers even while critically needed repairs stack up. Mostly run by nonprofits that rent space from NYCHA, those programs offer a lifeline for families, often earning high marks from the city’s reviewers while also providing subsidized or free care for almost 5,000 children.

The programs face citations for facilities issues more often than programs in buildings leased from private landlords, a survey by the Day Care Council of New York found recently. Though it’s not always clear who is responsible for making repairs, operators can face burdensome fines.

Providers “have to dig into their own pockets,” said Mai Miksic, a research analyst for the Day Care Council. “They’re paying fines for problems that aren’t theirs.”

Groups representing nonprofit providers operating out of NYCHA community centers have begun to join together to advocate for changes, and they say officials have shown interest in taking action. They also say they know that their needs represent only a sliver of the pressing facilities problems facing the country’s largest public housing agency and its residents. Remediation of lead paint in agency apartments where children live is behind schedule, and the city estimates that NYCHA needs a total of more than $30 billion in repairs and upgrades.

Day care centers alone require $130 million in fixes, according to NYCHA. That figure likely does not include problems that affect the entire buildings where the centers are located, such as boilers that need replacing.

The Jacob Riis houses, which were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, needs almost $94 million in renovations over the next five years, including heating upgrades and drainage work, according to city figures.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, a 54-year-old social services organization that runs daycares and community programs in Lower Manhattan and Queens, has cared for small children in the complex for decades. It currently uses three classrooms in the basement of one of the towers, including one — the one with the persistent leak — that is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s heralded Pre-K for All program.

Staff and children at the center have a front-row seat to the building’s problems. A steam pipe in the main hallway frequently bursts. With every explosion, waterlogged ceiling tiles come crashing down and the center’s only bathroom for children becomes off-limits due to dripping, scalding-hot water. NYCHA has encased the temperamental pipe in a makeshift closet.

At times, the facility’s troubles have seemed too disruptive for the Chinese-American Planning Council to justify keeping its center in the building. All the garbage for the tower piles into a compactor room in the middle of the center. The only way to empty it, twice a day, is to haul the trash past classrooms and out an open door.

But Mary Cheng, the director of childhood services for the planning council, said they’ve resolved to stay because closing isn’t a good option, either — not for kids of such a young age, who thrive on stability, and not for parents who rely on the center’s longer hours so they can work to support their families.

We had to think: Are we being a service to the community or a disservice?” Cheng asked. “You’re faced with the issue of constant facility issues.”

Operators say they stay because NYCHA centers are usually where their services can have the most impact, and because the more affordable rent allows them to stretch their dollars even further.

“These buildings were built with community spaces for a reason. Neighborhoods need places for people to gather,” said Melissa Aase, the executive director of University Settlement, a nonprofit that runs programs for seniors and after-school care in NYCHA buildings. “If we’re crumbling, it sends a really powerful message to the residents about their worth.”

NYCHA says it takes just over 10 days for the authority to respond to repair requests in community centers — a much shorter turnaround of more than a month across the system. Still, it’s a long window that advocates say has sometimes forced programs to shut their doors or even have their licenses yanked.

The nonprofit Union Settlement runs five early childhood centers in NYCHA buildings across East Harlem. Sometimes, they’ve had to turn parents away who come to drop off their children in the morning because the classrooms are unbearably cold in the winter. The group is usually able to make space at another facility when an emergency forces one to close, but the sudden change can pose a “huge hardship” for families who need to get to work on time, said David Nocenti, the executive director.

“The same problems that the residents have, the nonprofits have as we’re trying to serve those residents,” Nocenti said. “Just like boilers go out in residential buildings and there’s no heat, the same boiler generally affects the community centers as well.”

Facilities breakdowns can leave operators vulnerable to fines from the city health department, which can reach thousands of dollars. Most programs operating in NYCHA centers are subsidized by city, state, and federal funds, but typically public money can’t be used to cover the citations. At Jacob Riis, the staff has resorted to “simple fundraisers” like bake sales to pay the fines, Cheng said. 

Centers take more than just a budgetary hit, as resolving the citations usually requires managers or other high-ranking officials spending hours at a city hearing.

“It’s also a loss of the staff and a loss of the expertise at that time as well,” Nocenti said. “If the department of health comes and you have no heat, you get fined for no heat, even though we don’t control the boiler and can’t make repairs to the boiler.”

Aase said her organization has sometimes dug into its own budget to make repairs to keep its after-school and senior programs open. One University Settlement center has paid deep cleanings after 17 sewage floods in the course 12 months, she said, while another center with a rodent infestation has closed 10 times over the span of a year and required spending on extermination services.

A record of citations could pose problems for operators vying for city contracts, so it’s better to pay for fixes than risk your reputation, Aase said.

“When you have violations, it shows up as you’re being vetted,” she said. “We spend our own money because we know either that NYCHA doesn’t have the funds or doesn’t have the personnel to address the issue quickly enough, and community members want to come back.”

Calling themselves the NYCHA Community Space Coalition, service providers that run more than 200 programs within public housing facilities have drawn up an action plan for addressing what they say is an emergency situation. They are calling for state money to help pay for repairs, and reimbursement from the city when operators tap their own budgets for fixes. They are also asking for agreements that plainly spell out NYCHA’s responsibilities and a clear delineation of who is responsible for which fines.

There have been encouraging signs, said J.T. Falcone, a policy analyst with United Neighborhood Houses, one of the organizations behind the coalition. NYCHA is meeting weekly with other city agencies to help speed up repairs, and Falcone said the authority has designated specific people to oversee work on pressing issues.

Locally, there have been small changes that can make a notable difference in the day-to-day operation of a center. At Jacob Riis, the trash is now taken out once before students arrive in the morning, and a lock has been placed on the door to the compactor room which had previously been left open and posed a potential risk to children.

While providers have found willing partners, a NYCHA official suggested there’s only so much that can be done when faced with such deep needs across the housing authority.

“These centers are valuable assets to our communities that deserve to be preserved. But given NYCHA’s dire financial position and more than $30 billion in capital needs, it is difficult to accommodate both the repairs needed to secure our residents’ homes as well as the fixes for our centers,” a NYCHA spokesman wrote in an email. “We continue to work with our partners to clearly lay out roles and responsibilities for each party to determine the best strategy for financing existing repair needs within the context of NYCHA’s larger capital needs.”

These thorny problems will soon fall also to the city’s education department to help resolve.

Currently, contracts for publicly subsidized child-care centers are overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services. But that oversight is set to shift to the education department beginning this summer, part of a high-stakes effort to streamline services for the city’s children from birth through high school. Already, the education department has joined NYCHA’s regular meetings with other city agencies.

We’ll continue to work closely with our providers in NYCHA facilities and support them through this transition,” education department spokeswoman Isabelle Boundy wrote in an email.

For now, parents are left to keep their fingers crossed as they make use of programs that the mayor says could transform their children’s lives — and the city’s future.

Dexter Fauntleroy drops off his son at Jacob Riis most mornings. Three-year-old Kenai has gone to daycare there for most of his short life. Fauntleroy and his wife have kept their youngest son enrolled at the center, just down the street from their apartment in the Lillian Wald houses, because they’re impressed with how much Kenai has learned and the dedication they see from the staff.

Of course, Fauntleroy has noticed the persistent leaks and patch-job repairs. The thought that the roof could come crashing down on students someday has crossed his mind.

“Does that have to happen before it’s taken seriously?” he asked. “There has to be some accountability.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.