Missing 18 Days of School in One Year is Not Healthy, and Newark Youth are Researching Peers’ Reasons and Ideas for a Solution

NJHI 2017: Next Generation Community Leaders New-Ark Leaders of Health

Chronic absenteeism is defined by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, as missing 10 percent of school days in a given year. In Newark, that equates to about 18 or more days per year, and two or more days per month. By this definition, during the 2015-2016 school year, 48% of Newark high school students were chronically absent. The state average is 15%. A student being chronically absent can be detrimental to their future success in life; it can lead to poor academic behavior and, if it persists, dropping out of school. As a result, employment, access to higher education, healthcare, and a person’s lifestyle could all be compromised. In Newark, where more than 18% of children live in extreme poverty, an education is the best way to overcome the challenges that stem from systemic racism and persistent inequality. The question is, why are so many Newark students missing school?

One thing we know, and that most children may not tell you, is there is a reason behind their absence. National research suggests that factors such as family instability, traumatic experiences, domestic violence, divorce, transportation, poverty and health issues such as asthma etc., contribute to why many students fail to make it to school every day. All of these issues are connected to a student’s social, physical and mental health. Over the school year, as a part of the Next Generation Community Leaders program, we learned about various health issues from community experts. One presentation that really resonated with all of us, was the one from Rutgers University Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies Wenhua Lu on depression in black teens. It gave many of us an “aha moment.” Depression looks different in black teens – it often looks like withdrawal from activities, and a lack of engagement. Could that also mean engagement in school?

We have learned through reading past research that school absenteeism is not a one-time occurrence, it is something that builds up over time due to many risk factors beginning at a young age. For example, Newark students in K-8 have an absenteeism rate of 23% while high school students double that at 48%. Seniors tend to be absent the most, reaching an outrageous 59%. It is important to understand the reasons that are keeping students away from school to better assist students/families. More research has to be done on this specific issue, especially in a city like Newark that has such a high rate of high school absenteeism. To get to the solutions, we must talk to a whole lot of students. The youth have the answer.

We are looking to discover how the youth in our city understand chronic absenteeism, how they perceive the problem, and what solutions they would offer.

This summer, the New-Ark Leaders of Health, a partnership between the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University Newark and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s Youth Office, are conducting a youth participatory action research (YPAR) project. The purpose of this research is to understand the experiences of Newark youth between the ages of 14 and 21 who attend secondary school in the city. This research project will center the voices of the youth to help tell their stories. We are looking to discover how the youth in our city understand chronic absenteeism, how they perceive the problem, and what solutions they would offer.

This type of research will include the people who are experiencing the issue, so they can also be part of a solution. So far, we have received approval from the Institutional Review Board in the Office of Research Regulatory Affairs at Rutgers University, and we have started conducting surveys, hosting focus groups, analyzing the findings and filming the entire process. Our recruitment strategy involves partnering with summer programs that serve primarily high school students. We will also reach out to peers, friends, and parents in the community. By doing this research, we expect to reframe chronic absenteeism as a community health issue and use our findings to create a set of recommendations that will inform better practices surrounding chronic absenteeism. This will meet the social, emotional, mental and physical health needs of youth in the city and better understand why students stay in school. As a result, we hope to see a fall in absenteeism rates and inform policymakers to address the root causes.

Missing 10% of school in a given year is not healthy.  Students need more support to make it to the finish line, but sometimes we also need help making it to tomorrow. Making it to school. We hope our research will spread awareness and make a long-lasting impact.

Connect with the New-Ark Leaders of Health and follow their progress on Facebook. Track all of the Next Generation Community Leaders teams through the hashtag #NJLeaders2030.

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Vivian Peralta
Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University - Newark