By Brenda Flanagan
One year ago, more than 20 percent of kids didn’t show up for class at Trenton’s Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School. That’s a lot of empty desks, so Hedgepeth’s new principals followed a new blueprint. Armed with the names of the most chronically absent kids, they deployed special teams this August into even the roughest, gang-controlled neighborhoods.
“Which I wouldn’t advise anyone to go. I wish I could have videotaped and shown you all the look on this young man’s face when he said, ‘You came looking for me?'” Vice Principal Gregory Green said.
Teachers reached out to parents, asked how they could help get kids back into school. They interviewed absentee kids, asked why they didn’t attend.
“And she said, well initially I didn’t want to come back to school because people kept asking me, ‘Why aren’t you in school?’ And people kept saying, ‘You should’ve been in school, your grades should have been better, you’re a smart girl but if you had been in school.’ She didn’t want to hear that. So we really had to change the attitude of everyone in the building — including us,” Hedgepeth Principal Adrienne Hill said.
Advocates for Children of New Jersey studied statewide data on chronic absenteeism — that’s kids who miss 10 percent or more of school days — and they counted 136,000 students in grades K-12. The rate among blacks was 18 percent, among Hispanics 15 percent and whites 9 percent. The main reasons included transportation, housing and health issues — like asthma.
“When the kids were missing school it was because they got to a crisis situation. And so the clear need for preventive care was not happening at the level it needed to be happening,” said Cynthia Rice, ACNJ senior policy analyst.
“Not every parent has a car. Not every district provides transportation,” said ACNJ President and CEO Cecilia Zalkind.
The report showed kids who missed the most school posted the lowest scores in math and reading. No surprise.
“Chronic absenteeism is the gateway to dropping out, gateway to incarceration, joblessness and drug addiction,” said Sen. Diane Allen.
“Sometimes my dad would, I wouldn’t be able to, I can’t say I wouldn’t be able to come to school. But sometimes it’d be punishment and I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” Tourrie Moses said.
Moses started missing school in seventh grade and — despite excellent grades and devoted teachers in Montclair — slipped between the cracks. He’s now serving 15 years for a gang-related murder and his story’s told in the documentary, “The One That Got Away”. They’ve cut the middle school’s chronic absenteeism rate from 22 percent last September to 7 percent now.
“I’m hoping school districts around the state can mirror the kinds of programs Hedgepeth-Williams has put into place,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio.
So the bad news is chronic absenteeism is still a huge problem in New Jersey. But the good news is if schools act, reach out to kids and families they can get those kids back in the classroom where they belong.