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Newark school board approves changes to attendance, discipline, graduation policies

A student wearing a white shirt talks to a teacher wearing a black shirt inside of a classroom.

The Newark school board approved significant policy changes on Tuesday that will modify how absences are tracked and more.

Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

The Newark Board of Education approved updates to several policies Tuesday that will, among other changes, modify the way absences are tracked and suspensions are imposed. 

Certain rules embedded in the old policies contributed to an unclear number of retentions and suspensions. For example, a clause in the previous attendance policy would keep a student in the same grade due to chronic absenteeism without considering the cause of the absences. 

New language in the policies aims to keep students in school and on track, Superintendent Roger León said. 

The updated attendance policy and guidance will give attendance monitors and teachers codes to mark if an absence is due to trauma, crisis, bereavement, or health conditions, or if a tardy is because of bus and public transportation issues.

Absences can also be due to out-of-school suspensions, and so, board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, pushed on Tuesday to amend the guidance further to add disciplinary actions as a reason for absences.

“I think we really risk funneling that school-to-prison pipeline and creating these spaces where kids who are suspended are also more likely to be chronically absent because they have no choice but to not be in school,” Murray-Thomas said. 

Leòn agreed to add a marker to indicate if a student is out of school due to suspension.

Black students in the district have historically been suspended at a higher rate than students of any other race, the latest federal data from 2017 shows. In a district where 16% of students were chronically absent in 2020-21, a significant number of students were penalized — in some cases even held back a grade — under the previous policy.

The amended discipline policy adds therapeutic interventions for level three conduct offenses, which include a wide range of disruptions from excessive tardiness and chronic absences to fighting and trespassing.

An amendment to the graduation requirement policy removes the June 1 deadline for seniors to submit a waiver to opt out of filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. The form helps students determine how much money they can get from federal financial aid to cover the cost of higher education, which can help students make an informed decision on college. 

That requirement was imposed this school year for the first time but proved to be a challenge for the Class of 2022.

As of May, León said last month, 75% of seniors had either submitted the FAFSA, or the New Jersey Alternate Financial Aid Application for undocumented students, or the required exemption form to their counselors. That meant that about a quarter of students were at risk of not fulfilling this graduation requirement. An updated number was not shared on Tuesday.

The amended co-curricular activities policy will require all students participating in activities to abide by a code of conduct that will be developed with input from student leaders and presented for approval by the board.

Lastly, the amended dress and grooming policy and guidance will remove hooded sweaters from a list of prohibited items and encourage schools to include students when developing uniform codes.

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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