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It doesn't matter how great the teacher is or how engaging the lesson if students simply aren't there. More than 5 million students in the U.S. miss at least two days of school each month. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team visited one city that's working hard to get those kids to show up.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Mel Atkins has spent most of his life with Grand Rapids Public Schools. He graduated from Ottawa Hills High, where he played baseball. But his real love, bowling. He's bowled 22 perfect games. He's been a teacher and a principal in Grand Rapids schools. Now he works for the district, overseeing just about everything related to students. One more thing you need to know about Mel - he's a number cruncher. Three years ago, his boss came to him with an assignment.
MEL ATKINS: I actually remember the conversation almost like yesterday.
NADWORNY: Mel, she asked, does Grand Rapids have an issue with chronic absenteeism?
ATKINS: I don't think I'd even heard of the definition at the time.
NADWORNY: Mel looked it up.
ATKINS: It was pretty apparent, you know, once we put the data in that, yes, there is a problem.
NADWORNY: A big problem. Of 17,000 kids, nearly 7,000 were missing a month or more of school a year.
CYNDY BULSON: I really didn't even know that there was any problems with the attendance.
NADWORNY: That's Cyndy Bulson. She's a grandmother here in Grand Rapids. Her grandkids - a first and second grader - they showed up in Mel Atkins's data. Sure, she says, they missed a day if it snowed or if they really didn't want to go, but she never counted it all up.
BULSON: It was one day here, one day there, and then, all of a sudden just boom.
NADWORNY: That boom - her phone rang. It was the school. In 2014, her grandkids, they said, had missed 21 and 26 days of school. Mel Atkins saw this happening all over the district. So we took a look at what other schools did - truancy officers, calling home, rewarding perfect attendance.
ATKINS: But we were like most districts in the sense that I think we'd read every research article, we'd read a lot of books, and we thought we knew what parents needed.
NADWORNY: But fast-forward a year...
ATKINS: We didn't see the gains we wanted to see.
NADWORNY: Their first effort flopped. So Mel and his community partners, they went back to the drawing board.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Touchdown, Ottawa Hills, number five.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Strive for less than five. Five.
NADWORNY: That's a PSA from a homecoming game last year. This go-around, the message was clear.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Challenge 5 - challenging students, parents and staff to less than five absences this school year...
NADWORNY: The whole city got on board. A big reason for that - Chana Edmond-Verley.
CHANA EDMOND-VERLEY: No more than five. No more than five.
NADWORNY: She helped Mel coordinate the community effort.
EDMOND-VERLEY: You got the grandmother on the porch, you got the business community, you got the police. Everybody is lifting up our kids and pointing the way.
NADWORNY: The next thing they did - get data out there. Mel shared the numbers with schools on 8-foot poster boards. When you visit a school, you can't miss them. They're huge. Mel gave data to principals, to business owners and churches. They printed out a big map of Grand Rapids, so they could see which neighborhoods were hurting. Businesses started putting Challenge 5 signs in their windows. Chana says the whole city bought in.
EDMOND-VERLEY: And all of a sudden, now, this thing started bubbling up.
NADWORNY: The final thing they did, Parent University. Parents helped the district create classes - online and in the schools - where parents could learn things, too.
EVELYN ORTIZ: Now let's continue looking at the data.
NADWORNY: That's principal Evelyn Ortiz leading a course on attendance for about 10 elementary school parents.
ORTIZ: How can we create successful students? This is the first step - making sure that they come to school every day.
NADWORNY: There were other classes, too, about immigration, using a computer. Cyndy Bulson, whose grandkids were missing so much school, she signed up for so many classes she earned the title power parent. She made friends. She got to know the staff. And now she's in the school almost as much as her grandkids are.
BULSON: Even if they weren't at school for a reason, I would be here.
NADWORNY: And so nearly three years later, more than 3,600 kids who were chronically absent aren't. And that includes Cyndy Bulson's two grandkids. Just last month, they had perfect attendance. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Grand Rapids, Mich.
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