When the nonprofit group Advocates for Children of New Jersey reported last year that nearly one third of public school students in Trenton regularly miss more than 10-percent of their classes, one Trenton school had already leaped into action.
Whether it was sending postcards home to students reminding them to "Come back, we miss you," or making home visits to parents or guardians, the Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School of the Arts was determined to get a handle on the chronic absenteeism that plagues too many schools.
Members of the state Assembly Education Committee touted the school's successes earlier this month when they approved legislation requiring that any public school in the state with an absentee rate of 10-percent or more develop a comprehensive plan to address the issue.
"Excessive absences can signal problems at home," says Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), one of the bill's sponsors.
That's why one of the most vital components of the measure calls for the involvement of parents.
Schools reporting alarming truancy rates will be expected to solicit input from families, either through distributing surveys, engaging with the parents' organization, or holding a public meeting if there is no parent organization.
The action plan ultimately arrived at collectively will identify problems and barriers to school attendance, offer recommendations to address those problems, and review school policies to ensure they support improved attendance.
Schools also will be required to inform parents when a youngster begins to show a pattern of absences, and stress how important it is their children show up at school on a regular basis.
The U.S. Department of Education warns that kids who regularly stay home from pre-school, kindergarten and first grade are considerably less likely to read at the proper grade level when they reach third grade.
Worse: By the end of third grade, these habitual truants are four times more likely than their peers to drop out of high school.
"The recent successful efforts of schools like Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School in Trenton show the importance and value of have in place collaborative school-wide programs involving teachers, administrators, parents and students," says Elizabeth Muoio (D-Mercer and Hunterdon).
After the Trenton school put its new policies into effect, the number of students bailing out of the classroom dropped significantly in one year.
These are results we'd all like to see replicated statewide. Singleton, Muoio and their colleagues are on the right track.