BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Demarest Elementary School last week embarked on a new program to improve student attendance, decrease tardiness, and generally, teach students to focus on coming to school, prepared to to learn.
Principal Mary Todaro calls the program “Ready Every Day.” She introduced “R.E.D.” in a Nov. 25 assembly.
Basically, the program is a friendly competition with prizes, or extra gym time, offered every week to children who are best at not forgetting to bring to school those library books which are due, or the musical instruments to be played, or the lunch to be eaten, or the gym sneakers to be worn, and, most of all, the homework to be completed. According to Todaro, for the successful student, much depends on thinking ahead and getting ready for school the night before.
“Demarest is a 21st-century school teaching workplace readiness skills,” Todaro said last Friday. “There are penalties for absences and tardiness in the middle and high school.”
But the primary concern for the program and Todaro is chronic absenteeism.
In September, the Bloomfield School District was one of 10 Essex County districts cited by Advocates for Children of New Jersey with 10 percent or more of its students chronically absent for the 2013-2014 school year. The total number of chronically absent students in the district, according to the group, was 707.
For New Jersey Department of Education, a student is considered absent when they are not present, regardless of whether the absence is excused or unexcused. The DOE says chronic absenteeism is when a child misses 10 percent or more of instructional days. A school year has 183 instructional days, Todaro said. So, a chronically absent student is one who has missed at least 18 days of school.
At Demarest, for the 2013-2014 school year — the last year the DOE came out with its school performance results — 6.9 percent of the students were chronically absent. In the performance report, that figure was rounded up to 7 percent. This percentage was still an improvement over Demarest results in 2012-2013, when 8.4 percent of the students were chronically absent. The statewide target is to decrease chronic absenteeism to 6 percent.
The R.E.D. program was developed by a panel of teachers at Demarest. Todaro said some of the teachers who were at the school before she arrived suggested the program because it was once in place and was successful. Why is was abandoned, Todaro did not know.
“We work really hard and attendance affects everything,” Todaro said.
She said there are times when parents are traveling back to their homelands and take the children. Parents will ask for homework for their child to do but they go away for two weeks.
“We have some online resources, too,” Todaro said, “but there is nothing that replaces being in a classroom.”
Making good attendance and preparedness child’s play is not the only purpose of the Demarest program. The program provides data which will allow Todaro and her staff to more closely track children with attendance and preparedness problems.
For the months of September and October, Todaro said student attendance was over 97 percent. She did not want to start the new program in November because it has six half-days and some parents will keep their child home for the entire day on half-days. So, she thought it was better to begin the program Dec. 1.
“Years ago, there were perfect attendance awards,” she said. “But there was a flu going around and the state discouraged schools from giving awards.”
But Todaro is determined to improve attendance at her school.
“What can work against me is if we have a bad winter or a strain of flu,” she said. “Even a delayed opening will impact us because it’s disruptive to bringing the child to school.”
But she has confidence in the program as more than just a friendly competition.
“The program addresses a little bit of everything,” she said. “The next day, the next school — life. My whole philosophy as a principal is to provide attention for the positive things. I’d rather call a student into my office for acing a test rather than, ‘Hey, why did you do that?’ But I do that, too.”