TRENTON — State Sen. Diane Allen has plenty of unfinished business that she hopes to finish before she retires next year.
Near the top of that list is getting legislation signed into law that would address the thousands of New Jersey schoolchildren found to be chronically absent from public schools.
Allen has been pushing the legislation for over a year, and she was at it again Monday during a Senate Education Committee hearing. The panel advanced the measure by a 4-0 vote.
“All teachers, superintendents and administrators, they have so much on their plate to try to educate their kids. We understand that,” Allen said during the hearing. “But we know if we don’t put this near the top of your plate, we’re not going to be able to educate so many of our children. And we’re dooming them to a life no one should live.”
The legislation would require the New Jersey Department of Education to include chronic absenteeism rates for each school on the state’s annual School Performance Reports, formerly known as the School Report Card.
The reports already include a wide range of data about each school, including enrollment demographics, standardized test scores, class sizes, and suspension and expulsion statistics.
The bill also would require schools with 10 percent or more of their enrollment found to be chronically absent to develop corrective action plans to improve their rates. Those plans would need to identify factors and barriers to school attendance and develop recommendations for ways to address the issues, as well as communication strategies to educate and engage parents on the issue and notify them if their child begins to show a “pattern of absences.”
Allen, who announced last week that she plans to retire at the end of her term next year, first introduced the legislation in 2015 in response to a report from a nonprofit advocacy group, Advocates for Children, which found that more than 139,000 New Jersey students in kindergarten through 12th grade were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year, including nearly 4,000 from Burlington County.
A student is considered chronically absent if he misses more than 18 days, which amounts to 10 percent of the mandated school year.
A follow-up report released by the group in September found that the total number of chronically absent students in the state decreased to 136,000 during the 2014-15 school year. However, 216 districts had “high chronic absenteeism,” defined as 10 percent or more of their student body missing over 18 days, regardless of whether the absence is excused or unexcused.
In 2013-14, 177 school districts in the state bore the label.
Sixteen districts were in Burlington County: Bass River, the Benjamin Banneker Preparatory Charter School in Willingboro, Burlington City, Burlington County Institute of Technology, Florence, Lenape Regional High School District, Mount Holly, New Hanover, North Hanover, Northern Burlington County Regional, Palmyra, Pemberton Township, Rancocas Valley Regional, Riverside, Willingboro and Woodland.
Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst with Advocates for Children, testified Monday that the legislation was a needed first step to address the problem of poor attendance.
“What schools do to address chronic absenteeism matters,” Rice said, adding that many districts weren’t even aware of what their chronic absenteeism numbers were until the group informed them.
“Even struggling schools with chronic absenteeism can do things to turn the curve and move the trajectory. … It just frankly takes a little bit of intentionality,” Rice said. “The bill says to schools, ‘You’ve got to think differently and work with families and communities to think differently, plan differently and do differently.’ ”
Vito Gagliardi, a former state commissioner of education, also urged the committee to advance the measure.
“There is no question in my mind that attendance is critical to students’ overall academic success. And no reform efforts will ever be successful when students aren’t in schools,” Gagliardi said.
Monday’s vote sent the legislation to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration. An identical bill in the Assembly is pending before that chamber’s Education Committee.