Detroit Schools' No. 1 Mission: Getting Kids To Class Dismal attendance rates have put Detroit Public Schools at risk of losing vital state funding, so the city has launched an assault on truancy. Attendance agent George Eason says, "If we see that the parent is willfully ... not sending the child to school, then we will take every means necessary to enforce the law."
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Detroit Schools' No. 1 Mission: Getting Kids To Class

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Detroit Schools' No. 1 Mission: Getting Kids To Class

Detroit Schools' No. 1 Mission: Getting Kids To Class

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Ask Detroit teachers about their biggest challenge and many will say, you can't teach kids who don't come to class. Last year, the average high school student in the Detroit Public Schools missed at least 28 days.

We heard yesterday about efforts to get parents more involved in the school system, and today, NPR's Larry Abramson looks at how Detroit is pushing parents to send their kids to school every day.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: George Eason is staring at a printout that says a lot about attendance problems here.

GEORGE EASON: To date, this student has 23 absences.

ABRAMSON: This year?

EASON: This year. And a couple of suspensions.

ABRAMSON: Eason is an attendance agent. He covers Detroit's border with Dearborn, Michigan. Most parents, he says, want their kids in school. They just need a little help. But some need a good strong shove.

EASON: We do take parents to court depending on, again, the dynamics of the case. We see that the parent is willfully keeping the child out for things such as babysitting or whatever and not sending the child to school, then we will take every means necessary to enforce the law.

ABRAMSON: To do that, Eason gathers up his attendance records and climbs into his trusty Honda. As we drive to his first stop, he points out landmarks in the school system's evolution.

EASON: There was a school down here, but it closed. This is another – this one closed about eight years ago.

ABRAMSON: When Eason started this job 18 years ago, the Detroit Public Schools had more than twice as many students as today. When schools close, children have to travel further to another building. On some days, they might not show up at all.

Learning suffers, but so do district finances. DPS stands to lose millions in state funding because of attendance problems over the last two years. They hope to do better this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

ABRAMSON: We climb the steps to a white clapboard house. George Eason wears a suit, a tie and a topcoat. He wants to look professional and be courteous.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi.

EASON: Hi. Mr. Eason. Told you I would stop by to talk to you about...

ABRAMSON: The first parent is glad to see him. Turns out, her three kids haven't been coming to school regularly because they need clothing and something else.

EASON: So who needs glasses?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All three of them do.

ABRAMSON: This family just moved in. Mom could afford to buy bedding, but not much else. Eason says many families are too ashamed to show up at school in tatters.

EASON: You have a clothing voucher, you know, to go to National Dry Goods and you have two shoe vouchers. You should be good to go.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.

ABRAMSON: With glasses and clothing, these kids are more likely to make the trip to school, but the next house is a different story.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You looking for my mom?

EASON: Yes.

ABRAMSON: Music is blasting. A bunch of little kids peer out through the storm door. At first, a couple of teenagers insist Mom's not home. Then she suddenly appears, armed with excuses about why an older son didn't show up at school.

EASON: Why was he out today?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Because I overslept. Why would they report every time my kids miss a couple days? I hate that.

EASON: They don't report it. Look here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes, they do.

EASON: Look. Let me show you something. Let's count them. One, two, three, four, five...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: They do it every time my kids miss days.

EASON: Well, it's the law.

ABRAMSON: George Eason leaves the family with a warning, but the situation is unresolved. Eason will have to take one approach to get the mother to play ball. He may need another tact with the teenage son, who is refusing to go to school.

EASON: So now I have to file a formal petition in amount of time before the courts to pick him up or catch him out on the street.

ABRAMSON: Eason says he prefers to work with parents rather than turn to legal action, which can take a long time.

While some families are defiant, many just break your heart. The final visit of the day takes Eason to a motel miles from his home school.

EASON: Hello. Is your mom here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Yes. Hi.

EASON: Hey, how you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I'm fine.

ABRAMSON: A young mother opens the door. The motel room is stuffed with kids, clothes and snacks. Four young children peer out of the gloom. Three of them should be in school, but the family has been evicted from their home and the mother has other reasons for being overwhelmed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Unintelligible).

ABRAMSON: Barely visible in the clutter is a pair of two-month-old twins. How is she supposed to take this brood to school by bus?

EASON: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: That's why I can't bus them because, like, to take them all would be hard.

ABRAMSON: Eason promises to do what he can to help, but it won't be easy since the family has no idea where they'll be living from day to day.

EASON: OK. See you all later. Take care of them babies.

COY LYNN ROBINSON: For the month of January, this, you know, breaks down our attendance.

ABRAMSON: Back at Jemison Elementary School, George Eason's home base, principal Coy Lynn Robinson points to her attendance chart for January. She says the numbers are improving, thanks to Eason and the district's other efforts to improve parental involvement, but it's still a struggle.

ROBINSON: On the 20th, we dropped to 67. The Friday before that, 66, but as you see, during the week of the 9th through the 12th, we were 80, 87 percent.

ABRAMSON: In other words, when events like the King holiday pop up, many families take an extra long weekend. Little things like that make it tough for Detroit Public Schools to communicate this simple message: Come to school on time every day, all day.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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