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March 9, 2017

Tackling Absenteeism in Plainfield: Early Childhood Taking the Lead

Peter Chen, Staff Attorney

Behind every student absence is a story; behind chronic absenteeism data are the daily challenges of teachers, families and children.

As districts have taken action and recognized that student attendance is essential to student success, ACNJ has been invited to districts across the state to present chronic absenteeism data and strategies. During ACNJ’s visit to Plainfield’s early childhood directors’ and family workers’ meeting, educators told us about chronic health issues, irregular work and child care schedules, and inadequate transportation for young children to get to school.

My colleague Cynthia Rice and I call it our “traveling roadshow,” presenting ACNJ’s findings on chronic absenteeism to schools, professional groups, and parents across New Jersey. Chronic absenteeism (the rate of students missing more than 10 percent of school days) has become a core issue for ACNJ.

These trips serve two functions – one, to educate folks about the importance of improving school attendance with possible solutions, and two, to hear from people on the ground about successful strategies to get students to school every day.

In Plainfield, Early Childhood Programs Director Evelyn Motley saw the issue firsthand, noting that what the Plainfield preschool providers see eventually trickles up through the public schools. The district saw that attendance was a consistent issue and that excessive absences could be tamed by strategic effort.

The early childhood directors highlighted that preschool classrooms face additional hurdles in ensuring regular attendance:

  1. Dispelling “It’s just babysitting/day care.” We know how powerful high-quality preschool can be in helping kids succeed in elementary school and beyond. The evidence for the value of preschool is overwhelming. But for families, the link between story time and a lifetime of reading is less tangible.
  2. Small obstacles are bigger for young children. If a parent’s car breaks down, an older child may be able to take public transportation or walk to school on their own, while there is less flexibility with a 4-year-old. In addition, if a parent’s work schedule changes and he/she cannot acquire before-school child care for the youngest child, fewer care options are available to that parent. These small obstacles can become insurmountable for families in poverty, especially if they have young children.
  3. Little kids get sick. Health is often listed as the top reason why preschoolers and kindergartners miss school. But behind each “sick day” is a deeper story of a child’s health. Educators in Plainfield discussed the disconnect between schools and the health care system, as well as poor understanding by parents of when a child should stay home (such as experiencing high fever or vomiting) and when a child should still go (headache, seasonal allergies). (PDF flyer “When Is Sick Too Sick”)

Taking a look at its attendance numbers, Plainfield has put in place exciting new policies and practices to reduce absenteeism, including:

  • better attendance data-tracking and regular feedback to directors,
  • calls home from family workers after only two absences,
  • incentive programs for regular attendance, and
  • inclusion of attendance data in health, behavioral intervention, and teacher feedback.

ACNJ looks forward to seeing the results from Plainfield’s effort to give kids a good start with good attendance in preschool. The early childhood directors and family workers voiced a strong commitment to integrating attendance into all the work they do. This kind of strategic approach to addressing chronic absenteeism can help turn the curve and create a culture of school attendance throughout the district.

Cynthia and I always learn a lot from our absenteism roadshow, and we're heartened by the daily changes taking place throughout the state to tackle this critical issue.

Peter Chen
Staff Attorney

The New Jersey Department of Education has included chronic absenteeism as a quality indicator under the state’s proposed plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), our nation's education funding law. The plan addresses the importance of attendance as a predictor of student success and requires schools that fall below attendance benchmarks to prepare a plan to reduce absences.To view the New Jersey Department of Education's proposed ESSA state plan and provide feedback, click here

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