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Newark high school students can earn hockey tickets, gift cards in campaign to fight chronic absenteeism

A woman wearing a plaid top teaches a class to a group of high school students.

Newark Public Schools launched a new program in January 2023 to boost attendance rates in four high schools.

Stephen Obisanya for Chalkbeat

Newark school leaders are offering gift cards and tickets to New Jersey Devils home games to students at four high schools as part of a new initiative to raise attendance and reduce chronic absenteeism. 

Among the high schools, Newark Vocational, Barringer, and West Side saw the highest levels of students who are chronically absent in October and November, according to data presented last month by the Newark Board of Education. But in a new partnership with the Devils Youth Foundation, the district launched an incentive program this month to raise attendance at Barringer, Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, and Weequahic High Schools, which are home to roughly 3,400 students combined.

A student is considered chronically absent if they miss between two and three days of school in a month, and severely chronically absent if they miss more than three and a half school days in that period. Chronically absent students are those who miss 10% or more of school days — or at least 18 days — during a school year for any reason. 

Newark has long struggled with poor attendance and previously used attendance campaigns to motivate students to get to school every day. This year, Newark school leaders are grappling with post-pandemic challenges and barriers such as transportation problems, housing instability, student illness, and school learning environments as they work to keep attendance rates up. 

Chalkbeat wants to hear from you. What barriers do you, your family, or your students face to regular school attendance?

The state uses chronic absenteeism as a measure of school quality and success for accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act, according to the New Jersey department of education. 

Just over 35% of Newark Public School students were reported as being chronically absent in November, according to data presented by the Newark Board of Education last month. The numbers reflect a roughly 4% increase from the previous month, when 31% of students were chronically or severely chronically absent. At the beginning of this school year, the district reported 27% of all Newark students were chronically absent in September.

Among the high schools, 30% of students at West Side had severe chronic absences by missing three and a half days of school or more in November. Newark Vocational reported 29% of its students had chronic absences because they missed two or three days of school that same month. 

In October, 35% of students at Barringer had severe chronic absences while Newark Vocational reported 28% of students had chronic absences because they missed two or three days that same month. Both Shabazz and Central reported 18% of students had severe chronic absences in November while Weequahic reported 13% that same month. 

Under the new initiative with the Devils Youth Foundation, the district aims to raise attendance by 2 percentage points in the high schools and reward students for achieving attendance goals. Students can earn Amazon gift cards and tickets to select New Jersey Devils home games as part of the program, which runs until June. 

“Absenteeism among students, especially since COVID, has been on the rise,” said Kate Whitman Annis, the executive director of the Devils Youth Foundation, in an email to Chalkbeat Newark. She said they are trying to address “the core issues students are facing that contribute to students missing school.” 

During the 2018-19 school year, the district had a 26.8% chronic absenteeism rate – a roughly 6% improvement from the previous school year when 32% of students were chronically absent, according to New Jersey School Performance data.

According to experts, students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and a greater risk of getting in trouble with the law. Experts cautioned that chronic absences sometimes vary from year to year for different reasons that could be tough to pinpoint. Hedy Cheng, the executive director for Attendance Works, a nonprofit focused on improving school attendance rates, said some challenges include school practices that can affect attendance, transportation issues, housing instability, and academic engagement.

“Kids who aren’t so challenged are generally having better attendance,” Cheng said. “But there’s a group of kids who are still experiencing challenges and their attendance might be even more challenged.”

High school students might face additional barriers to getting to school such as work, taking care of an older sibling, or an unsafe passage to campus due to community violence. Some find motivation in rewards programs that incentivize students to be in school, but those who are chronically or severely chronically absent may need more intensive support to address their attendance issues, Cheng added. 

As of Nov. 30, the district reported a 91.7% average daily attendance rate, similar to the 2019 rate when the district averaged 91%. But schools with high average daily attendance rates may still have a core group of chronically absent students. 

“Those kids also need [rewards] but it just won’t be sufficient,” said Cheng who also noted that severe chronic absences could still be high even in schools with strong daily attendance rates. 

In 2018, Superintendent Roger León launched a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five.” It required each district employee, from custodians to assistant superintendents, to call the families of five students to urge them to show up to school on the first day of classes. He noted the success of the program while the chronic absenteeism rate grew to 26% that school year. 

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org

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