Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

A Paterson, New Jersey, elementary school recently got a welcome surprise when it crunched its attendance data: The number of chronically absent students — those absent 10 percent of the year (18 days) — dropped by 76 percent, from 152 to 36, in one year.

“We knew it went down but, wow, this was a tremendous improvement,” says Sandra Diodonet, principal of School No. 5, which has 921 K-to-6 students, most from economically disadvantaged homes including many English-language learners (ELL).

It didn’t happen by chance. In 2014, the school launched a vigorous chronic absenteeism initiative. And preexisting school improvement measures produced conditions ripe for success.

School No. 5 quickly took more action soon after receiving results from the initiative’s early data phase, which identified 152 chronically absent students from the previous school year, including 28 percent of kindergartners — double the national average.

“That was an eye-opener,” says Diodonet, whose school is under state monitoring due to lagging achievement by ELL and special education students. “The connection between being absent and losing instructional time is huge. And some students we knew were from our at-risk population so you see that connection.”

The school’s chronic absenteeism initiative has benefited from:

  • Support from the school district and a dynamic principal, enthusiastic teachers Tara Martin and Jaclyn Dorrman, and staff from New Jersey Community Development Corporation (NJCDC), the lead agency providing social services on site, who formed a strong attendance team.
  • A “Success Mentor” program matching school staff with 40 first- and second-grade students with a history of absences. Twelve special education teachers and instructional aides volunteered to each mentor several students, checking in with them daily, rewarding those present and following up with families of absent students.
  • Training in strategies developed by Attendance Works, a GLR partner, and the Children’s Aid Society National Center for Community Schools (NCCS), based in New York City.  

“They have all the components,” says Sarah Jonas of NCCS, who trained School No. 5 and others in strategies including Success Mentors, which was pioneered successfully in New York City’s public schools.

“There is principal leadership — not just buy-in but participation — and a very strong partnership between a school and community-based organization. The teachers really own the role of mentoring chronically absent students. And everyone at the school works hard to create and maintain a positive school climate. That’s why you see these results.”

The success mentors, in particular, “make kids feel missed when they’re not there and connected to somebody who’s their advocate,” says Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, lead organization for Paterson Reads, the local grade-level reading campaign.

It also helped that School No. 5 is a full service community school — providing social services and health care on site. Staff members already were trained to look for issues affecting a student’s school success, already have community partners providing resources to address those issues and already do parent outreach. “Parents are more involved because the services are here so they’re coming to us in the building,” says Nicole Lebron of NJCDC, School No. 5’s Community School Director.

Also contributing to a conducive environment for the initiative are: 

  • Positive Behavior Support in Schools, a statewide effort to produce a positive social climate associated with better student attendance and performance.
  • AmeriCorps volunteers who mentor older students; a statewide attendance push, with potential financial penalties.
  • New attendance data being collected about students, which is publicly available by district and school on a state website.
  • A new statewide teacher evaluation system encouraging teachers to lead academic achievement efforts.
  • Frequent recognition of staff who volunteer as success mentors.

This year, the initiative will provide more school-wide classroom-based efforts, recruit more success mentors, including classroom teachers, and offer team-building activities for existing mentors. “We want them to build up our youth to be successful students,” says Diodonet.

For more information, contact Sandra Diodonet at 973-321-0050 or sdiodonet@paterson.k12.nj.us. Photos: Paterson School No. 5; Publication Date: Winter 2014. To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net. 

Is your community working to reduce chronic absence?  If so, share your experience in the comments box! 

Want more? Check out:  

  • In New Britain, Connecticut between 2012 and 2013, the percentage of chronically absent students plummeted in New Britain’s 10 elementary schools – for kindergartners, from 30 to 18 percent; first graders from 24 to 13 percent; second graders from 19 to 14; and third graders from 15 to 11 percent.
  • Kent County, Michigan uses Kent School Services Network, a community school initiative that places providers such as community school coordinators and behavioral health clinicians in the county’s highest-poverty schools to decrease chronic absenteeism and help students and their families succeed.

Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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