Chronic Absenteeism: In Mercer County, PHS ranks behind only Trenton Central High School in attendance

Graphic: Nina Zhong

As students pile more and more extracurriculars on top of their already-heavy school schedules, free time goes out the window. However, a study recently conducted by the Advocates for Children of New Jersey points out a time that many students may have been using to catch up on homework—class time.

The state-wide study, performed using attendance data from the 2013–2014 school year, tracked student absentee rates in the Princeton Public School district, categorizing students who missed more than 18 days of school a year as “chronically absent.” PPS will deny credit to any student whose attendance record reflects this classification, even if he or she has achieved a passing grade.

And while more than 100 districts in the state had ten percent or more students fit the “chronically absent” bill, only two of nine K–12 districts in Mercer County had sufficiently high rates to be labeled with high chronic absenteeism: the Trenton Public School and Princeton Public School districts.

Trends of chronic absenteeism are correlated with certain racial minorities as well as socio-economic classes, according to the study. While statewide 8.3 percent of white students were reported as chronically absent, well below the state average of ten percent of all students, 12.1 percent of Hispanic students and 14.3 percent of black students fit this same category.

Similarly, nearly 15 percent of students qualified as economically disadvantaged by the No Child Left Behind Act were chronically absent. Facts such as these support the findings in the Trenton Public Schools, where 80.3 percent of students are black and 79.7 percent are economically disadvantaged; however, it cannot substantiate the study’s findings in PPS.

Only 6 percent and 9 percent of PHS students are black and Hispanic, respectively, and only 8.9 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch in the 2013–2014 school year. For its relatively smaller number of students who fit into these groups, PHS has a much higher than expected rate of chronic absenteeism.

The study indicated a rapid increase in these rates as students entered and completed high school. While only five percent of K–3 students were absent more than 18 days in a year, nearly one third, 31 percent, of juniors and seniors were chronically absent. This number is far above the statewide average of 16.5 percent of juniors and seniors.

The state-wide study, released in August 2015, also correlates with historical trends in PPS attendance. In April 2013, after receiving an anonymous tip-off of inconsistent records, the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance from the Department of Education released results of an extensive investigation into PHS grading and attendance files from the 2009–2012 graduating classes.

Seeking to confirm that the records of all students permitted to graduate had adhered to policies designated by the school, including local attendance requirements, OFAC discovered that PHS was unable to substantiate multiple decisions to reinstate credit after an unacceptable absence rate. Reinstatement occurs through an appeal process—an alternative to loss of credit in which a student specifies extenuating circumstances in a written appeal to an Attendance Review Committee that accounts for his or her absence record.

Although no charges were pressed, the OFAC report concluded by recommending a Corrective Action Plan to uphold adherence to policies and address the specified deficiencies.

Nevertheless, the PHS student attendance rates demonstrated by the recent report of chronic absenteeism call into question the improvement PHS has made to remedy the discrepancies identified in 2013.

While PHS’s high rate could be attributed to several causes, students pointed to a prioritization of extracurriculars over schoolwork and senioritis as two primary factors. “I know certain individuals that are just so busy with clubs and sports that they skip class just to deal with these problems,” said Ameya Hadap ’17. “Things outside the school are really important to them.”

In addition, students may miss school to make up work. “A lot of schools have a lot of absent kids because they just don’t care about school,” Hadap said. “Princeton has a lot of absent kids because they care too much.”

For many seniors, missing school isn’t a big problem once college decisions are announced. “If I get into college early, I probably won’t have as much of a drive to come to  class,” said Alina Zhao ’16. “My brother [missed a lot of school second semester senior year] and I know a bunch of seniors who did last year, and [my classmates] probably all have the same mindset—that they don’t have to try anymore.”

Even during the college admissions process, juniors and seniors may not comply by the statewide mandate to cap college visits at three a year. “A lot of [the seniors] are applying to … 13 or 14 [colleges]. That’s a lot of absences if you go to visit them all,” said Sarah Galvis ’16.

The 2015 study suggests that schools develop incentives and communication strategies with parents in order to combat the problem of chronic absenteeism, a potential area for PPS to work with in the future.

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