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This week, a team of Minneapolis Public Schools educators will begin one of the most critical — and challenging — tasks of the new school year: trying to track down the students who have already stopped showing up.

Under state requirements, school districts must withdraw students who miss 15 or more days of class in a row. So as Minneapolis marks the 15th day of the school year, the district's We Want You Back team is out in full force. Its members text, call and use social media to reach out to students. They knock on doors and ask community members to alert them if groups of teenagers are hanging out at corner stores or libraries during the school day.

"We're hearing from teachers saying: 'I haven't seen this student yet,'" said Maria Ahlgren, an associate educator at Patrick Henry High School and a part of the team dedicated to finding and re-enrolling students who've disappeared from school.

Chronic absenteeism — defined as missing more than 10% of school days — has been a lingering effect of the pandemic, forcing school districts to make extraordinary efforts to reach absent students and their families. The first weeks of the school year are critical both for students needing to establish a routine and for school districts, which soon must submit enrollment counts to the state; because funding is doled out per pupil, losing students means less money for districts.

But the alarming rates of absenteeism go beyond the lists of students who don't show up for weeks at a time.

Across Minnesota, only 70% of students attended class at least 90% of the time during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the most recent state Department of Education report. That's a drop from pre-pandemic times, when 85% of students were regularly showing up for school.

Last year in Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, one in four students were chronically absent, meaning they missed more than 10% of the school year. That's nearly double the rate from pre-pandemic years.

The number of Minneapolis students regularly attending school has plummeted in recent years; before the pandemic, 79% of the district's students showed up on a regular basis. In 2022, just 46% were making it to class most of the time.

Attendance drops for some groups have been particularly pronounced, mirroring persistent achievement gaps across other measures. In 2019, for example, the attendance rate was 71% for Minneapolis' Black students and 44% for Native American students. In 2022: fewer than one-third of Black students and under a quarter of Native American students were consistently coming to class.

Those numbers have required schools to look to outside programs to help get kids to school, said Amanda Harrington, program manager of Be@School, Hennepin County's truancy intervention program. Her program is available to students officially considered truant because they've racked up enough absences, but the many other students missing repeat days of class comprise an even larger group.

"We're a high-capacity program but I can't imagine how much larger our numbers would be if we were looking at chronic absenteeism as a whole," Harrington said.

Complex challenges

School leaders across several districts say the reasons for students' recurrent absences vary. But many point to the recent explosion of student mental health needs as one key driver. After years of learning from home, students are increasingly anxious to attend school. Those seeking therapy often have to do so during school hours and miss class; schools with in-school mental health professionals often have a hard time filling those roles.

Leaving for appointments is an excused absence, but students are still missing crucial class time, said Harrington.

Teachers can refer students to Be@School after they've missed seven days of school without an excuse. At 12 absences, school staff can make another referral to Be@School. Families can then choose to join the program (about 30% of referred families opted in last year) and receive services to help with barriers that may be contributing to absenteeism, like a lack of transportation, stable housing or food.

Data collected from program participants shows the top reasons behind chronic absenteeism were student mental or physical health, chemical use, academic struggles and transportation barriers. Others had communication problems with the school or major life changes like having a baby, moving or being incarcerated.

"Attendance is often a symptom of underlying issues," said Britt Olean, an Anoka- Hennepin district school social worker.

Making connections

Understanding that context and building a relationship with the student and parents is crucial to motivating a student to come back to school, said members of Minneapolis' We Want You Back team. But building trust can only happen once they find a student. That can take some sleuthing.

In addition to searching for students online and by phone, the team fans out across the city, looking for opportunities to reconnect — or connect for the first time — with missing students. Some hang out at local gyms, ready to play pickup basketball with a student who's been skipping class.

Often, it works. Of the more than 1,700 Minneapolis students dropped from enrollment because of absenteeism last year, 550 were re-enrolled after the We Want You Back team reached out. Another 550 were confirmed to be enrolled in other districts.

"It's not the model, it's the people," said Colleen Kaibel, director of student retention and recovery for Minneapolis Public Schools. "It's their persistence, their belief in students and the authenticity of the relationship."

One approach used in Minneapolis is called Check and Connect, a dropout prevention intervention model from the University of Minnesota originally launched in Minneapolis Public Schools in the 1990s. This year, thanks to funding from the state, the program — which targets students who show signs of disengagement and matches them with a trained mentor — has expanded to 15 additional city elementary and middle schools.

Anoka-Hennepin high schools also began training staff on the Check and Connect model last year. More than half of the 250 students who participated in Check and Connect in the district last year improved their attendance, Olean said.

Jana Ferguson, the project coordinator for the U's Institute on Community Integration, provides trainings on Check and Connect for districts across the country.

"Demand for it has just exploded," over the last couple of years, she said.

Ferguson recently heard from large school districts in California and a consortium in Texas. St. Louis County in Minnesota just launched the program for its schools, sparking a wave of smaller districts reaching out to ask for similar training, Ferguson said.

'A community issue'

Even when students show up for school, some administrators say it can be challenging to get them to go — and stay — in class. That's been a problem at Woodbury High School, said assistant principal Elicia Buzinec.

"That's often an issue of mental health or a chemical issue," Buzinec said, adding that staff is focused on "rekindling relationships and gathering information to share with families."

Paulina Jacobsson, an associate educator in Minneapolis and member of the We Want You Back team, agreed. Relationship building is key, she said. Students need to know that people believe in them and want them at school.

"Family engagement and taking responsibility for our youth is for everybody," Jacobsson said. "This is not something that [falls on] one department in the district. It's a community issue."