RANDOLPH, NJ- Following a comprehensive presentation on chronic absenteeism in mid-October, RHS Principal Debbie Iosso and Vice Principal Matthew Agrati returned on Jan. 15 to update the BOE on the school’s efforts to measure and manage this critical issue. Joined by Charles Dimiceli, Director of Guidance, they offered a more encouraging outlook for the current school year, along with an array of data points to help frame the discussion and programs to support more consistent attendance.
State Sets a Narrow Definition of Excusable Absence
The state established a total of 18 or more days of unexcused absences (about 2 per month) as the threshold for “chronic absenteeism.” Starting in 2016, the state also set 10% of the student population as the point at which chronic absenteeism is considered an issue for the school. With over 250 students in the chronically absent category by the end of the 2017-18 school year, RHS had clearly exceeded the state’s acceptable level.
Confounding the matter is the definition of “unexcused,” which the NJ Department of Education limits to five reasons only: religious observance; college visits (3 days per school year in grades 11 and 12); participation in Take Our Children to Work Day; observance of Veterans Day; and, bussing issues. Like many other school districts, Randolph’s policy excuses other absences, including illness accompanied by a doctor’s note, driver’s license exams, and death in the family. As a result, students considered chronically absent by the state are not necessarily categorized that way by the district.
RHS Team Leverages Data to Identify Potential Solutions
The RHS team shared numerous charts and graphs, including a bar graph showing the percentage of chronically absent students each year, starting in 2010. Mrs. Iosso stated “As indicated, our worst year was 2017-18, and we have identified specific days that largely contributed to that number: after-prom days, Spring Break make-up snow days, senior exam exemptions, and the make-up snow day on June 22. We can – and have – put interventions in place to address these days, some of which are in our control.”
Students with at least 2 unexcused absences per month are considered “on track” to be chronically absent. At this time last year, 126 RHS students were in this category, but only 61 currently qualify. On a similarly positive note, 23 students had already been deemed chronically absent by this time last year, while only 9 have reached 18 or more unexcused days this year.
Mr. Agrati reviewed the reasons why students presently tracking toward chronic absenteeism are missing school, and pointed out that, “a majority of absences – 55% – are documented as illnesses that are supported by either a doctor’s note or a parent note…10% of our absences are due to documented vacations, often extended vacations from times we are already off from school.”
Not surprisingly, seniors represented 41% of the students on track to be chronically absent, due in part to college visits and associated travel time beyond the 3 days excused by the state and also to driver’s license exams.
Besides tracking potential and actual attendance problems, the RHS team is also focusing on attendance successes, celebrating students who achieve perfect attendance. There were 310 of these students in the first quarter, up from 287 last year.
“At this point in the year, we are cautiously optimistic that we are moving in the right direction with encouraging attendance in school,” Mrs. Iosso commented. She and her colleagues highlighted positive outcomes thus far from the OASIS and Student Connection Team programs for students at risk for chronic absenteeism, as well as a range of attendance-related communication and awareness initiatives.
New supports include “Second Chance Transportation” for students who miss the bus and have no other way to get to school, and “Morning Motivation” texts with entertaining “bit-mojis” to help participating students wake up and get to school. In addition, the Junior Prom will be on Saturday, April 27 – a change from the weeknight dates chosen in the past – so students will not need to leave early ahead of prom or miss a school day afterwards.
The impact of all of these changes will be monitored closely throughout the school year, and the RHS team will continue to consider each student’s individual circumstances when addressing chronic absenteeism.