NORTH BRUNSWICK – More than 500 elementary school students and their parents attended a special celebration on June 13 – appropriate, considering the topic of the evening was attendance in school.
Throughout the year, nurses in the North Brunswick School District stressed the importance of attending school every day, since data suggests that students who are chronically absent in kindergarten, first and second grade have only a 17 percent chance of achieving reading proficiency by the end of third grade, according to Mary Ellen Engel, school nurse at Judd Elementary School.
The district received a $10,000 grant from the New Jersey Collaborative Center for Nursing before the 2017-18 school year to combat chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days, which equates to about a month of learning.
“Our grant primarily focused on chronically absent students in kindergarten, but we quickly realized that a community-wide effort was needed to educate everyone about the impact of absenteeism on academic, socioeconomic and health outcomes. Our initiative resulted in a 50 percent decrease in absences in our focus group [36 of 404 total kindergarteners in the four elementary schools],” she said.
Engel said the goal was to improve the statistics by just 5 percent from the 2016-17 school year. She said the vast improvement was due in large part to improving communication with parents and other community partners.
She said barriers to attendance, as per parents, included not having proper outwear during the winter months, not having childcare on half days, not having health insurance, which led to prolonged or untreated medical issues for the students or the parents, vehicle or transportation issues, vacations and overseas travel plans, and other cultural issues.
“We wanted to target these kids and give them the help they need to get to school. … Lots of times people are working hard and we have to help them and give them capacity in the community,” Engel said. “[It’s about] welcome back, we’re so glad you’re here. It gives people the feeling we want you here in school.”
She said parents may underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep, or breakfast in the morning, so the program helped provide tangible items such as asthma treatment plans or food at school.
To help the students understand the importance as well, Engel said there were signs hanging in the hallways, a poster contest based on the theme of “I love school because …” and a thumbprint project where the students used their fingers to make leaves on a giant tree, visually showing their impact.
“It’s bringing the conversation of attendance to the forefront of everybody’s vocabulary,” said Anna Tupe, the school nurse at North Brunswick Township High School who was previously at Livingston Park Elementary.
Dana Lucas, a first grade inclusion teacher at Judd Elementary, said she sees firsthand how attendance affects test scores, fosters growth, builds confidence and makes children work harder.
“I think when a kid is in school consecutively they feel like they didn’t miss anything,” she said. “It’s definitely a positive impact.
“It is so beneficial to us [educators] because we’re not dealing with a child catching up on a lesson … or wanting homework sent home. … It makes it a lot easier on the teachers.”
Although the grant funding has not been renewed, the program will continue next school year, expanding to the higher grades. Engel said developing these habits early on makes them more apt to remain for life.
“Everybody wants their kid to be successful,” she said.
The school district partnered with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the New Jersey Collaborative Center for Nursing, the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, Saint Peter’s University Hospital, Superintendent of Schools Brian Zychowski and the Board of Education, Mayor Francis “Mac” Womack and the North Brunswick Township Council and Bowlero.
“Building a community, people understand and value their schools,” Engel said.
“It’s building a strong foundation and community connection,” Tupe said.
On June 13, the culminating event included games, arts and crafts, activities and meet-and-greets for the families to enjoy at the high school.
Contact Jennifer Amato at firstname.lastname@example.org.