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How one school is trying to improve attendance of chronically absent students


An alarming number of K-12 students aren't going to school. In 2023, about 1 in 4 was chronically absent, according to new research. Schools are going above and beyond to turn those numbers around and get these students back in class. Often, that means having difficult conversations with kids and families. Leigh Paterson of member station KUNC sat in on one of those conversations. She brings us this story from a high school in a Colorado mountain town.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: Nice to meet you. How old are you?

NOEMI: Sixteen.


I meet Noemi on an early December morning at her school.

DAVE: How are you doing, kid?

PATERSON: She's here with her mom to meet with Dave, a school administrator.

DAVE: So what's going on? Why aren't we coming to school? - 'cause you were coming to school quite a bit, and then all of a sudden...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PATERSON: A school staffer interprets for Noemi's mom. Sitting quietly, the teen wears gold and black Nikes and a gray hoodie pulled up.

NOEMI: I don't want to be here. I want to study but not in this school.

PATERSON: As tears roll down her cheeks, she says, I want to study but not here.

DAVE: Do you not feel safe? Are you stressed?

NOEMI: Because I don't have friends. I don't have anything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PATERSON: Dave says she hasn't been in school much since Thanksgiving. We're using Noemi's middle name so that this conversation about her attendance doesn't hurt future job or academic prospects. To further protect her identity, we aren't naming her school or her mom, and we're only using the school administrator's first name. The teen and her family came to Colorado from El Salvador.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She doesn't want to come here because she was dating this kid, and they broke up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

PATERSON: Noemi's mom has been sitting quietly through most of the meeting. But here, she speaks up to explain what her daughter has been going through.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everybody is bullying or laughing or talking. Oh, after being the perfect couple, look at you.

DAVE: Can I say something that's kind of hard? If people are treating you like that, they're not worth your time, and you also don't want them to have the power over the rest of your life.

PATERSON: Noemi has been chronically absent, meaning she's missed 10% or more of the school year so far. Since the pandemic, absenteeism has been a problem across the country. During the last academic year, more than a quarter of students in the U.S. were chronically absent. That's according to research from the American Enterprise Institute.

DAVE: OK, let me - can I pull up my data so I can be nerdy? All right.

PATERSON: In this rural mountain school district, the problem is even worse. Around half of students regularly missed school. Understanding why is a priority here.

DAVE: So we have to know what's going on with our kids. So...

PATERSON: Dave opens up information from student interviews the school has been collecting. The top reasons for missing class - family responsibilities, transportation issues and jobs.

DAVE: So everything from working at, you know, Walmart to, you know, helping parents with their, you know, cleaning businesses. Yeah, or they're working until really late at night, and then, you know, getting up in the morning is tough.

PATERSON: Another big reason - being sick or struggling with mental health. Noemi's mom says she tried to get help for her daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, so I was trying to find resources to try to find a therapist.

DAVE: So I can help with that, too.

PATERSON: Noemi tells Dave the hardest part of coming to school for her...

NOEMI: It's the hallway or lunchtime.

PATERSON: School staff are really hoping Noemi will stay for the rest of the day.

DAVE: So we can set up special things for you.

PATERSON: Like a pass to leave class early to steer clear of the students teasing her.

DAVE: So you don't have to be in the hallway with them.

PATERSON: She could avoid the cafeteria.

DAVE: We can find you a really cool place to eat lunch.

PATERSON: They offered to stay in touch over a messaging app.

DAVE: We're here to help you.

PATERSON: After all of this back and forth...

NOEMI: I can't do this.

DAVE: Not today?

PATERSON: Noemi says she's not ready...

NOEMI: (Speaking Spanish).

PATERSON: ...But says she will come in on Monday, after the weekend.

DAVE: Do you have a favorite color Takis?

PATERSON: Dave promises to have her favorite snack in his office.

DAVE: There's, like, purple and blue, I think.

NOEMI: Yes, purple.

DAVE: Purple. I'm putting it on my to-do list - get some purple Takis.

PATERSON: Noemi did not come to school on Monday, but she did make it Tuesday.

DAVE: Hey, Leigh. We've had to do...

PATERSON: Since then, Dave says she's been coming to school more.

DAVE: She is really, really improving her attendance.

PATERSON: She recently had two straight weeks of perfect attendance. The staff did a celebration dance in the hallway.

For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARI LENNOX SONG, "GET CLOSE" ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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