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These teens were missing too much school. Here's what it took to get them back

Michelle Perez for NPR

Sophomore Neomi sits quietly in an office at her high school in a Colorado mountain town west of Denver. It's a cold December morning and she's wearing gold and black Nikes and a gray hoodie, pulled up.

She's surrounded by school staff and her mom.

"I just wanna be really clear about the intention of this meeting. It's not to make you feel bad," says Dave, a school administrator.

"What's going on?" he asks Neomi. "Why aren't we coming to school? Because you were coming to school quite a bit, and then all of a sudden..."

As Neomi listens, tears roll down her cheeks.

"Do you not feel safe? Are you stressed?" Dave asks softly.

Finally, in a quiet voice, the teen says, "I don't have friends. I don't have any people."

Neomi has been chronically absent, which means, at the time of this meeting, she had already missed 10% or more of the school year. The teen is part of an alarming trend among the country's K-12 students.

Chronic absenteeism skyrocketed nationwide during the pandemic. In the 2022-'23 academic year, 26% of U.S. students were chronically absent, according to research from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Before the pandemic, only 15% of students were regularly missing school.

In some places, like Colorado and Oregon, the rates of chronic absenteeism are even higher.

Research has shown there's a link between irregular attendance and not graduating – and attendance can be a better predictor of a student's drop-out risk than test scores.

"The flip side of it [is] kids with high attendance are much more likely to stay on track and graduate with their peers," says Johann Liljengren, director of dropout prevention for the Colorado Department of Education.

Going beyond academics to help solve absenteeism

Getting chronically absent students back to class is a priority for schools. It requires support from families and teachers, as well as difficult, personal conversations – like the kind Dave and Neomi are having in Colorado.

NPR is only using the teen's middle name so 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 administrator's first name.

Neomi and her family came to Colorado from El Salvador. At the December meeting, a school staffer interprets for Neomi's mom, who has been listening quietly.

When Dave points out that the teen hasn't been in school much since Thanksgiving, Neomi's mom speaks up to explain what her daughter has been going through.

"She doesn't want to come here because she was dating this kid and they broke up," she says through the interpreter. "Everybody is bullying or laughing or talking: 'Well, after being the perfect couple, look at you.' "

Neomi's mom tried to get help for her daughter.

"I was trying to find resources to try to find a therapist," she says through the interpreter.

Dave tells her he can help with that. He knows, through student interviews, that health, including mental health, was among the top reasons around half of all students in this rural district were chronically absent during the 2022-'23 school year.

Other reasons include family responsibilities, transportation issues and jobs.

"So everything from working at, you know, Walmart to helping parents with their cleaning businesses," Dave explains. "They're working till really late at night. And then, you know, getting up in the morning is tough."

For Neomi, the hardest part of coming to school is running into students in the hallways and at lunchtime. With this key information, staffers get to work on some solutions that could help bring the teenager back.

They offer to give her a pass to leave class early so she can avoid the students who have been teasing her.

Dave suggests finding a classroom where she can eat lunch, and school staff offer to stay in touch over a messaging app.

They try to get Neomi to stay for the rest of the school day, but she says she isn't ready. Though she promises to come back on Monday, after the weekend.

What it looks like to come back from absenteeism

Anais and her mom agree Anais' sophomore year was a low point in her high school career: She missed more than a month of classes, which set her back academically and put her at risk of not graduating on time, a common consequence of chronic absenteeism in Oregon.

Anais is currently a junior at David Douglas High School in southeast Portland, Ore.

On a Friday after school back in February, the bubbly 17-year-old and her mom, Josette, are outside, in front of their apartment complex, joking around.

She and her mom go back and forth on how they'd grade Anais' attendance last year.

Josette gives her daughter a D.

"From January to June, you were not there a lot," she says.

Anais is harder on herself: "I would say a D-minus."

Last school year, Anais was sick a lot, but, like Neomi, she was also going through a breakup. Both kept her from school for days at a time.

NPR is not using Anais' full name so she can talk openly about her attendance without hurting future academic or job prospects. To further protect her identity, we also aren't fully naming her mom, Josette.

Chronic absenteeism at Anais' high school was at 44% in 2023, well above AEI's national average.

For Anais, missing so much school hurt her grades and changed her friendships. She says her teachers tried to help – "The teachers really did try their best with me with not showing up" — but there wasn't much they could do.

But this year has been different. Her attendance is back up, and Anais has been working on her grades.

What changed? She hasn't been sick as much this year – and she also got back together with her boyfriend.

Josette doesn't love that the boyfriend continues to play a role in her daughter's attendance. She's quick to remind Anais that school is a priority.

"I do talk to her about not letting things get in the way of her education," Josette says.

After so many absences, getting back on track to graduate goes beyond just showing up. Anais has been taking a credit recovery class after school to make up for what she missed during her sophomore year. She plans to attend summer school too, if that's what it takes to finish on time.

Josette has faith her daughter will pull it off. If she does, Anais would be the first of her five siblings to graduate from a traditional high school.

At that point, Anais jokes, "You're pretty much a grown adult."

Back on track

One thing both Anais and her mom can agree on is how they'd grade Anais' attendance this school year: Both give it an A.

As the school year winds down in Colorado, Neomi's attendance has also turned around. Dave says she missed school the Monday after the meeting, but she did make it on Tuesday. Since then, she's been coming to school a lot more. Recently the teenager had a two-week stretch of perfect attendance. Dave says school staff did a celebration dance in the hallway.

Leigh Paterson covers youth mental health for KUNC in Northern Colorado, and Elizabeth Miller covers education for OPB in Portland, Ore.

Digital and audio stories edited by: Nicole Cohen
Audio stories produced by: Lauren Migaki
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson

Copyright 2024 NPR

Elizabeth Miller is a student at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, with a major in broadcasting. Elizabeth is still exploring her options for the future, but would most enjoy pursuing a career that lets her talk to someone different everyday. She loves a good concert.