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You can fix some of the toughest problems in education by focusing on one thing - getting kids to show up for school in the first place. Students who miss just two days of school per month are far more likely to fall behind and eventually drop out. Often it's a mix of truancy and illness and family problems. The U.S. Education Department is working on this, holding a virtual summit today seeking solutions. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been looking for answers, too, at an elementary school in Baltimore.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Gough Street, Southeast Baltimore, 7:30 a.m.
MARK GAITHER: Hey, Erwin. Hey, Edgar. Good morning, Victoria.
NADWORNY: Mark Gaither is standing outside Wolfe Street Academy, a neighborhood elementary school near the Port of Baltimore.
GAITHER: Good morning, Daniel.
NADWORNY: Gaither is the principal. Most of his students speak Spanish at home. Ninety-six percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Each morning, he makes a point to say hello. That's 225 good mornings.
GAITHER: Rain, shine, snow - good morning.
NADWORNY: Ten years ago, this school was in bad shape. Their test scores were terrible. They faced a state takeover. Then Gaither took over. He changed a lot. But he started with one key thing - attendance.
GAITHER: If you can crack it, you're going to get a lot of bang for your buck back in terms of improvement.
NADWORNY: And they did. In 2014, Wolfe's test scores were second-highest in the district.
ROBERT BALFANZ: This is, like, the biggest thing in school improvement that people have paid the least attention to.
NADWORNY: That Robert Balfanz, who studies absenteeism at Johns Hopkins University. He says it's like ignoring something basic, like bacteria in a hospital.
BALFANZ: You put all this effort into helping the patient, and then because you don't pay attention to bacteria, they get sick and die on you.
NADWORNY: He studied high school dropouts for years and kept seeing a red flag - chronic absence in elementary and middle school. If you miss a couple days of school a month, you fall behind in reading. And if you can't read, you can't pass the test.
BALFANZ: To miss a month of school when you're 11 and 12, there's got to be something behind that.
NADWORNY: And at Wolfe Street Academy, there was. Problems like tooth decay, mental health, not having a winter coat. The list goes on. So Gaither reached out to community organizations to fix those problems. The University of Maryland sends dental students for checkups, and Gaither says there's a box in the cafeteria with donated clothes.
GAITHER: It's a common-sense idea. It's a complex marker to move because there's so many different pieces.
NADWORNY: One of the biggest pieces - parents. So this morning, he's opening up the school library for parents to visit.
GAITHER: When you build a relationship, people feel comfortable coming to you knowing that you might be able to do something to help them.
NADWORNY: And that's what Gaither's doing every morning.
GAITHER: Good morning (laughter).
NADWORNY: Greeting families, building trust, forging relationships. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Baltimore.
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