Chronic Absenteeism Looms As Major Challenge for City Schools

School 28 had the highest percentage of students with more than 20 absences in 2010-11.

PATERSON, NJ – At School 28, 152 students were absent for 20 or more days during the 2010-11 academic year, according to data compiled by the Paterson Education Fund (PEF). That was almost 30 percent of the school’s enrollment.

Five other city elementary schools also had more than 100 students with 20 absences that year, according to the PEF survey. They were Dale Avenue, which had 108 students or 28 percent of its enrollment; School 10, which had 155 students or 26 percent; School 6, which had 118 students, or 23 percent; School 21, which had 125 students, or 18 percent; and School 15, which had 119 students, or 15 percent.

Overall, 15 Paterson elementary schools had at least 10 percent of their students with 20 absences in the 180-day school schedule for 2010-11.

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“It’s very worrisome to realize we have a group of kids whose families are struggling with whatever issues that keeping them from getting their children to school,’’ said Irene Sterling, president of the PEF, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Something is way out of line here,’’ said school board member Errol Kerr. “Kids can’t learn if they’re not coming to school.’’

In the past year, local education officials have launched various programs to try to reform the city’s struggling school district and yet another wave of changes is coming this September. But the reforms won’t work on empty desks. The PEF's absentee data shows a direct correlation between Paterson's worst-performing schools and those with the worst attendance.

The stakes in the district’s absenteeism problem could become much greater if the Christie administration’s plan to change the way it calculates state aid takes effect. The New Jersey education departments is considering replacing its current system that bases state aid to local school districts on enrollment with a new formula that would be based on attendance.

Paterson could lose millions of dollars a year as a result.

State-appointed schools superintendent Donnie Evans recently created a committee to try to find ways to improve attendance rates, said district spokeswoman Terry Corallo. “It’s an issue that we need to address,’’ said Corallo. By early fall, she said, the new committee would have some recommendations for improving attendance.

The district already has various policies on attendance and retention. One of them, for example, says students who attend fewer than 160 of the 180 school days in a year would be left back unless there are “extenuating circumstances’’. But the district has not been enforcing that policy for years, officials said, as part of its overall “social promotion” approach that allowed students to move on to the next grade whether or not they meet the required standards.

“The district should be much more aggressive about it,’’ said School Board President Christopher Irving. “We have to do a better job of holding parents accountable.’’

Sterling said her group, which surveyed attendance rates as part of its efforts to improve reading levels among the city’s youngest students, has not examined the specific causes for the chronic absenteeism. In some cases, she said, students may have chronic illnesses. In others, a lack of transportation may be the reason. Some children, she said, serve as their families’ primary translators and are kept home from school to fulfill that role. Finally, Sterling said, there are parents who are simply neglectful.

“We have to find ways to help parents change their behavior,’’ Sterling said.

Under state law, parents whose children have more than 20 unexcused absences in a year are supposed to appear in municipal court, officials said. School board member Jonathan Hodges said he has sat in on some of those court proceedings over the years.

“I’m not sure that’s the best way,’’ Hodges said. “I’ve seen parents get sanctioned and have to pay penalties for their children’s behavior. I’m talking about parents who took their child to school and the child left without them knowing it.’’

Hodges said he would rather see the students themselves perform some form of community service as penalty for their truancy. “But I don’t think New Jersey law permits that,’’ he said.

The school board’s vice president, Kenneth Simmons, said the district’s efforts to foster parent involvement have not been as successful as he would like. “That’s what the district hasn’t figured out yet: How do we get parents to become more engaged in their children’s education?’’ Simmons said.

Simmons also said that the instability within the school district sends a negative message to city children.

“The students aren’t taking any responsibility because it looks like the adults aren’t,’’ Simmons said. We have to have stability. I think Dr. Evans understands that and appreciates that.’’

The other city schools where more than 10 percent of the students were absent for 20 or more days in 2010-11 were School 12, with 14 percent; School 20, with 13 percent; Kilpatrick, with 13 percent; Napier, with 12 percent; School 14, with 12 percent; Martin Luther King, New Roberto Clemente, and Schools 13 and 7 with 10 percent.


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