Reginald Mitchell knows missing school is usually about more than skipping class.
The attendance advocate at U.S. Grant High School works every day to root out the reason seniors aren't in class.
Students battle drug addiction, bullying, dysfunctional homes, absent parents, mental illness and other problems. There's pressure to work and support impoverished families. There's pressure to stay home and watch younger siblings or their own children.
“When these kids don't see themselves or see their future as being successful, it's hard for us to tell them how to get there,” said Mitchell, his eyeglasses tucked into the V of his sweater vest.
U.S. Grant High School employs four full-time attendance advocates, including Mitchell, who work to combat truancy and help students stay on track to graduate. The advocates call home, send letters and track kids down in the hallways. They serve as mentors, coaches and taskmasters.
Attendance has improved every quarter for the past year, Principal Tamie Sanders said. Eventually, that work will show up in the graduation rates.
Spotting a student at risk for dropping out comes down to two things: numbers and intuition.
Educators can use data to spot kids in trouble — absences, discipline write-ups, grades.
But more subtle signs, like dirty clothing or quietness in class, can be red flags as well, Assistant Principal Mary Barrett said.
“You notice changes in kids,” she said.
About 98 percent of students at U.S. Grant High School come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
The pressure to work to support the family can be intense, Mitchell said.
Trading paychecks for backpacks is a tough sell.
Some students work construction or roof houses for $10 an hour — more than their parents make.
“The kids have not been acclimated to viewing education as a priority,” Mitchell said. “They're wrestling with getting a job and getting an education.”
For some students, the decision to stay in school comes down to simple math, said Gary Redding, attendance advocate for the sophomore class. If they have a diploma, they're likely to make more money in the long run.
But giving up a paycheck to lug books and do homework can be difficult when their families need money today.
“You're liking that $300, $400 now, but you can't survive on that the rest of your life,” said Redding, a retired high school principal from Texas.
Encouraging students to stay in school — or come back — is a challenge, Mitchell said. Life is complex for many students at Grant. So the attendance advocates work to build confidence, set expectations and hold students accountable.
They want to create hope for their students, Mitchell said. Nobody slips through the cracks. Their students aren't
“They're salvageable,” Mitchell said. “We take them under our wings.”