NEWARK, NJ—Jemiah Wolfe, 18, a student at LEAD charter school, read a passage IN her poem to a hushed crowd: “I’m sorry for the way I act but it’s for many reasons. I’m hurt and bitter. I change just like the seasons.”
Wolfe and several other students recited poetry Tuesday to serve as a reminder for teachers, administrators and policymakers as to why they were attending a symposium called “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism” held at the Paul Robeson Campus Center on the Rutgers-Newark campus.
“It’s hard to follow the voice of youth,” said Dr. Lauren Wells, Co-Chair of the Newark Youth Policy Board. “The voices of these young people tell us what the problem is. It matters that we all show up for our young people.”
In the 2016-17 school year, about 4,600 Newark high school students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of enrolled school days. That accounts for at least 80,000 missed school days.
Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, who attended the symposium, pointed to trauma as the cause of chronic absenteeism in schools in Newark.
“It’s a problem in a city that looks like ours,” Baraka told TAPInto Newark. “The issue of trauma that comes with high poverty, unemployment, food insecurity and other stress factors. We’re responding to that."
Baraka said policymakers need to redefine how they view trauma to include events that may not include physical violence using an example of a parent being arrested in the middle of the night as a potentially traumatic experience for a student.
Baraka spoke to the packed room and stated that outcomes in life are better for students who attend even a failing school than they are for students who don’t attend school.
“Our job is to get them into a school building and to get them into a school building frequently,” said Baraka.
Wells also stressed the importance of addressing chronic absenteeism.
“We’re talking about our children’s lives,” Wells added. “It’s an issue of poverty. The vital systems and resources and systems that work in other communities have been systemically eroded and chipped away at.”
Dr. Sunne-Ryse Smith, executive director of Student Support Services, and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory spoke about the current challenges facing Newark schools and improvements being made now that the problem of chronic absenteeism is being studied and fought against.
Smith said officials are now paying close attention to the school calendar. For example, many students would stop attending classes after finals were over when there were two or three weeks left. Now finals are held slightly later and schools close slightly earlier.
Among the reasons officials named for chronic absenteeism included disengagement in curriculum, lack of trusted relationships with adults in school, inconsistent use of school policy that impacts attendance, social and emotional issues like depression, anxiety and exposure to trauma, distance from school, personal safety, parental support for attendance and family responsibilities such as jobs and childcare.
“Underneath the inappropriate behavior is a form of communication,” said Smith.
Wolfe, one of the students to read poetry at the event, will graduate in June after falling behind in school at the age of 17 and getting into trouble on the streets.
“I might come bold, I might come nice,” read Wolfe. “But my heart has black on it and it’s a cold block of black ice.”