Absenteeism a Significant Problem in New Jersey School Districts


About 125,000 K-12 New Jersey students missed more than 18 days of school during the 2013-2014 school year, according to a new report from a child advocacy organization.

Such rampant absenteeism can put students at risk of falling behind their peers in academic achievement. Adam Clark, writing for New Jersey On-Line, reports that Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), in a review of state Department of Education data, found that 177 school districts statewide had more than 10% of their students chronically absent. Minority students and students from low-income families had the highest rate of absenteeism, often missing 18 days of school or more.

“It’s pretty simple. You have to be in school to learn,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of ACNJ. “We think this is a significant problem in New Jersey with potentially lifelong consequences for children.” 

National studies have found that chronic absenteeism can affect reading skills, test scores, as well as social emotional skills, according to ACNJ, and is a factor in higher school dropout rates. Nineteen districts in Ocean County had more than 10% of students chronically absent in 2013-2014. Essex County had 10 districts with the same rate. Data for Newark Public Schools was not available.

Educators have stated that understanding the reasons for absenteeism can be a difficult task. Administrators at Woodbine School District in Cape May County, a rural area, found that bad weather resulted in increased absences because there is no free transportation provided to and from school. In Paterson, Sandra Diodonut, former principal of a school in the area, said that students missed days because they did not have clean uniforms to wear, had a doctor appointment, and mothers who faced communication barriers because they did not speak English.

In some instances, says senior policy analyst for ACNJ Cynthia Rice, parents scheduled vacations during the school year.

“From that first day of school, staff should be analyzing absentee data so that students that may be at risk can be identified as early as possible and steps can be taken to address to problem,” Rice said. 

Ocean City is one of the school districts with 10% or more of students who are chronically absent, reports Anthony Bellano of Ocean City Patch. A total of 227 children in the district exhibited chronic absenteeism which is 11% of the total student population. This breaks down to 8% of children in kindergarten through third grade and 16% of juniors and seniors at Ocean City High School.

Recommendations in the report included: helping parents understand how important attendance is; analyzing absentee information beginning in the first weeks of school; contacting parents as soon as a problem is identified; building positive relationships with parents; and rewarding excellent or improved attendance.

The ACNJ report showed that poor attendance is more prevalent in the lowest grades and in the later grades of high school. Rita Giordano, reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, writes that black students made up about 16% of the state’s school population in the 2013-2014 school year, but 24% of the students who were absent at a detrimental rate.

Hispanic students number 25% of the state’s student enrollment, but make up 30% of the student absentee rate. Homeless children make up 0.6% of the population in schools but 28% of the chronically absent.

The Princeton school district had a 13% rate of absenteeism, but the rate of absent 11th and 12th graders rose to 31%.