By ERIN ROLL
Last school year, about 14 percent of Montclair High School’s students were “chronically” absent from school. Charles H. Bullock Elementary students were absent 10.2 percent of time, while Glenfield Middle School absenteeism rate was 13. 5 percent. Districts with an absenteeism rate of 10 percent or more are considered to have a truancy problem or chronic absenteeism, according to the NJ School Performance Report.
A student in New Jersey is defined as being chronically absent if they miss at least 10 percent of school days, or at least 18 days out of the school year.
In Montclair, chronic absenteeism was particularly high among African-American students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities, the report found.
Montclair will soon have to come up with a plan to address its absenteeism. A set of bills that are awaiting the governor’s signature would require districts with an absenteeism rate of 10 percent or more to develop a corrective action plan.
“Chronic absenteeism creates major academic challenges for students, teachers and school administration, and is a gateway to countless challenges later in life for those students who suffer the effects of missing school,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, one of the main sponsors of the bill that has 17 legislators as co-sponsors.
Once law, districts with schools exhibiting a 10 percent absenteeism rate will be mandated to develop a corrective action plan based on a parent input. Many factors lead to truancy such as home life, school environment, student performance, transportation and community expectations. A survey would be compiled with parents identifying barriers to attendance, and developing recommendations to address those barriers.
“Having a plan in place to tackle the problem head on, and involving parents in the process, can help reduce any potential for conflict and help students who may have been falling behind refocus on their studies,” Jasey said.
The bill would require schools to report all absences and suspensions annually. Additionally, schools would be required to provide a school profile, including data such as staff salaries and raises, and a profile of the senior class’ post graduate work or study course.
Montclair is not alone in its high absenteeism rate. Throughout the state, approximately 10 percent of the state’s K-12 population are chronically absent, according to a 2016 report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey. The bills took only months to unanimously clear both the houses.
“The district is looking into this and continuing to work on our plan to remediate the attendance issue,” said Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak.
The 2016-2017 school year is the first year that the state performance reports have used chronic absenteeism as a metric for school performance. However, reports have, for the last several years, included data on what percentage of students in each school were absent for a certain number of days.
According to Montclair’s school performance report for the 2016-2017 school year, Montclair High School was judged as “needing improvement” in terms of chronic absenteeism. Absences used for the data included excused and unexcused absences, and suspensions.
Montclair’s absentee rates
• At Montclair High School, of absent students 16 percent were sophomores, 16 percent juniors, 15 percent seniors and nine percent freshmen during the 2016-2017 school year. Absenteeism rates for Montclair’s sophomores and juniors were higher than the state averages, while the rates for freshmen and seniors were lower than the state average.
• At Montclair High School, 22 percent of the chronic absentees missed 11 to 15 days, while 20 percent missed over 15 days of school. At Glenfield, 17 percent of absent students missed more than 15 days. Fifteen percent of Bullock absent students missed 15 or more days.
• The state report also found that chronic absentee rates in Montclair were particularly high among African-American students, poorer students and students with disabilities in all three schools.
How Montclair deals with absenteeism now
“Prolonged or repeated absences, excused or unexcused, from school or from class, deprive students of the educational and classroom experiences deemed essential to learning and may result in retention at grade level or loss of credit or removal from a course that would count toward the high school diploma in accordance with the policies of this Board,” Montclair’s district policy states.
The policy further states that the district superintendent will develop procedures related to student attendance. These include praising students for exemplary attendance, and identifying truant students and addressing the root causes behind missing class, but the policy does not specifically mention guidelines for addressing chronic absenteeism.
The policy does not specifically state how many days of school a student would have to miss before being held back a grade. Under New Jersey state law, schools are required to be in session for at least 180 days a year.
For offenses such as truancy, Montclair has a sliding scale of discipline, starting with in-school suspension for the first offense. Subsequent offenses may lead to out-of-school suspension and a parent/caregiver conference.
District wide, the schools had an average of 94.7 percent daily attendance during the 2016-2017 school year, according to data provided by the district.
Of the schools, Northeast had the highest average daily attendance, with 96 percent, while the high school had an average of 93 percent daily attendance.
Of the three middle schools, Buzz Aldrin had a 95.6 percent daily attendance rate, while Renaissance had 94.9 percent and Glenfield had 94.4 percent.
As of April 18, for the 2017-2018 school year the schools saw an average of 95 percent daily attendance. Hillside and Northeast led the schools with 96 percent, while the high school had 93.8 percent attendance.
Although the state report is self reporting, Pinsak pointed to the accuracy of the data.
“We are making sure that accurate data is being put into the system. For example, are tardy students counted as tardy or absent? Errors like this affect our data. It is a complex issue and so proposed solutions are multifaceted,” she said.
When asked about the higher absenteeism rates among African-American and poorer students, Pinsak said that the district was looking at absenteeism as an equity issue.
Recently, NJ Transit added a new bus stop at Montclair High School, at the request of students who said that the existing school bus routes made it difficult for students from the south end to get to and from school.