The stuffy basement cafeteria swirls with middle-schoolers. This is where Justin Roias usually checks in with a sixth-grader he’s mentoring, but Manny Aponte is nowhere to be found.
Word comes that Manny’s been spotted in a hallway – a streak of red and black, flashing by on a skateboard.
Manny’s skipping lunch, but at least he’s not skipping school.
That marks major progress for a boy who is trying to break free from the shadows of the day when, as he tells it, out of all the children playing in the yard, “that bullet chose me.”
His attendance could also mean the difference between the road to dropping out and the road to graduation.
Mr. Roias navigated his own challenges growing up, including homelessness and his parents’ addictions. For “many of us,” he’s told Manny, education “is the only path.”
But that path can seem lonely and overwhelming to a boy like Manny, who had to deal with physical and mental trauma before he was even in second grade.
The arrival of Roias changed that. For Manny, there was suddenly an adult focused intensely on whether he showed up at Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence, R.I. – giving him new incentive to want to answer “here” when his name was called.
“Kids come to school when they know someone cares about them and is going to miss them,” says Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national campaign by the nonprofit Child and Family Policy Center.
Mentors like Roias tap into a growing body of research about the power of such relationships to give low-income students footholds in an uphill climb through school.
They’re not the traditional volunteers who take a kid out to chat over lunch or go bowling a couple of times a month. “Success mentors” take the effect that one caring person can have further, offering attention from adults who are connected enough to a school to give real-time feedback.
For many students dealing with adversity, having at least one anchor relationship that connects them to a web of supports is key. If students feel supported by adults in school, it can reduce the likelihood of them dropping out by 25 percent, according to a recent report by America’s Promise Alliance.
Checking in almost daily “builds a kind of relationship of trust that allows it to be more likely that [the students] will talk about their challenges, and the success mentor can help them gain access to supports,” Ms. Chang says.
When Gilbert Stuart Middle School took a closer look at attendance last winter, it found that 322 students – about one-third of the school – were absent more than 10 percent of the time.
Manny was among them.
He and 62 other sixth-graders were paired with mentors, including teachers, staff members, and a cluster of young City Year participants like Roias, who are serving in a branch of Americorps.
The school is a testing ground for a national strategy to reduce chronic absenteeism by connecting more kids to a supportive relationship at school.
Around the country, 6.5 million – or 13 percent – of K-12 students missed more than 15 days of school in 2013-14. That’s the first national snapshot of absenteeism, released as part of the US Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection.
But in a significant number of schools – often those with concentrations of poverty – chronic absenteeism rates top 20 percent among elementary students and 50 percent among high-schoolers, says Robert Balfanz, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center in Baltimore. In Providence, 31.8 percent of middle-schoolers were chronically absent last year, down slightly from 33.4 percent the year before.
Missing 10 percent of school lowers the likelihood of a child learning to read by third grade. For middle-schoolers like Manny, it contributes to children failing classes and being held back. For high-schoolers, chronic absence during even one school year is correlated with at least a fivefold increase in the likelihood of a student dropping out, a Utah study found.
“We need kids in school every day if we’re going to close the achievement gaps and opportunity gaps that exist,” says Providence Superintendent Christopher Maher.
To that end, the Education Department has a goal of reaching 1 million students within the next several years. It launched the My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative in January in Providence and nine other cities – and quickly added 20 more.
The game of tag that changed everything
Most of Manny’s troubles with school can be traced back to one moment.
He was 6, playing tag outside with his cousins, when he was shot.
He survived the gang rivalry that involved a member of his family, who has since left that life. But Manny was afraid to leave his mother’s side. A few years later, anxiety attacks led to his repeating fourth grade, twice, he says.
“Sometimes I just think about myself like, I’m a mess-up ... but I’m not. I know I’m not,” he says.
What seemed like minor issues to a teacher could set Manny off, leading to suspensions.
“Manny was the first student who ever threw something at me,” says Jamie Woods, who teaches supplemental math. She noticed that Manny seemed skittish, so she called his mom and found out about what had happened.
Ms. Woods realized her first job was “to make him feel safe,” she says.
If he came to class late, she’d thank him for coming and encourage him to come earlier the next day. If he needed her to explain something again, she didn’t lose patience. The change in her student was dramatic.
“He told me, ‘I never understood division before. Now that I get it, can I come do some more?’ ” Woods says. “He asked to be excused from gym to come do math.”
But when Gilbert Stuart started its mentor program in February, Manny wasn’t so interested. In fact, he skipped the ice cream social where he was supposed to meet Roias for the first time.
Roias tracked him down – and eased into a friendship by showing Manny he knew the local slang, could chat about hip hop, and could beat him in basketball.
“He’s dealt with a lot of challenges growing up. But I didn’t learn that till we built a strong relationship,” Roias says.
As a child, Roias says he witnessed his parents abusing drugs, alcohol, and each other. When he was 14, his father went to prison, and he and his mom moved into a homeless shelter. After graduating from high school in Providence, Roias got a bachelor’s degree in social work from Rhode Island College.
“A couple weeks ago we had what I call a ‘real talk’ conversation,” Roias says. “We talked about life; we talked about his childhood.”
Manny’s attendance improved dramatically – not because of the prize incentives students were offered, Roias says, but because “something turned on and he just wanted to be a better student.”
Manny credits Roias for much of the change. “He motivates me. He’s the best person I ever met in the world.... I have no other people like him ... that’s always on me, pushing me,” he says. “Ever since I met with Justin the first time, it was a big difference for me. I felt like he cared for me.”
Manny’s progress hasn’t been a straight line. After the major turnaround, he was suspended again for skipping class and behaving in ways that teachers deemed disrespectful.
When he came back, Roias tried not to let his frustration show. “I said, ‘I need that Manny that was here before April vacation.... The physical you is here, but the real Manny is not.’ ”
‘You gotta high-five to get by’
Many school officials simply don’t realize how often certain kids aren’t even in the building.
Traditionally, public schools have tracked average daily attendance only for the whole school. “You could have [attendance] in the low 90s ... and still have 20 percent of your kids missing a month or more of school,” says Mr. Balfanz.
Now, at Gilbert Stuart, there’s little chance of skipping school unnoticed. On this particular morning, there’s no chance of showing up unnoticed, either.
As clusters of students arrive at their giant 1930s-era building, the stairway is lined with City Year participants. They’re snapping, clapping, and chanting – calling out students by name: “You gotta high-five to get by, to get by.”
Some students ham it up, dancing slowly up the stairs to soak in the love before bounding into the building. A toddler in a nearby car stares in wonder.
“This alone is changing the culture of the school,” says Shannon McLoud, an English teacher and success mentor.
The initial focus on sixth-graders has already been a catalyst for efforts to improve attendance, including incentives such as special field trips for classes with perfect attendance in a given month.
It’s a starting point for a school that hadn’t been paying enough attention, says Principal Scott Sutherland, who arrived last fall with experience turning around one of the city’s troubled high schools. “When you have [more than 300] students excessively absent from school, you really need to dive in deep,” he says.
Some fixes are straightforward: This fall, he’s reinstating a homeroom system, so one teacher can consistently track who is there.
Another problem was an overreliance on suspensions. He hired a dean to deal with behavioral issues and cut suspensions dramatically.
Sixth-grader Deanna Alvarez had some issues at the start of school last year – she would get to class late and talk back to teachers. But she might not have gotten much attention if it weren’t for the attendance analysis, says Ms. McLoud, her mentor.
Deanna rolled her eyes at first, but she became more interested when she realized she could improve her chances of winning a prize by showing up each day to place a ticket in a lottery bag.
Her mother, Jessica Cruz, says at first she didn’t believe the program was real: “She was like, ‘Ma, I got to get to school on time. I can’t miss.’... She’s the first one in the house up in the morning.”
Then Deanna came home with proof: “Beats by Dr. Dre” headphones.
It wasn’t just the prizes. Ms. Cruz rattles off the ways Deanna describes McLoud: “She’s not rude, she’s nice, she’s mellow, she doesn’t yell, she’s respectful, she understands.”
Deanna adds, “If she sees me in the hallways, she’ll be like, ‘Deanna, get to class now,’ and she’ll start counting from five, and I’ll start walking.”
“She smiles more in the hallway,” says McLoud. “I’ve always known she was a smart girl.... There’s no doubt this kid is going to rock it in high school and get some scholarships and go on to college.”
When a student doesn’t check in, the mentor calls home. Maybe she missed her ride to school and is afraid to walk. Maybe he’s home taking care of a sick sibling because his mom can’t miss work. Each mentor keeps a log and shares any concerns with a school attendance team. An “X” in one binder marks an absence with a note: “Grandma died,” accompanied by a sad face.
More complicated problems are referred to a social worker or other supports.
Dan Harris, an eighth-grade science teacher, has been mentoring three students. Two improved their attendance quickly. The third has been more of a challenge, because of stress at home, Mr. Harris says. “It’s hard to overcome a home situation like that, but … it very well could have gotten worse if there wasn’t someone from the school communicating with his mom very frequently.”
By June, the number of Gilbert Stuart sixth-graders who were chronically absent had been cut in half.
A bar chart representing one student shows 26 pink lines for absences before the kickoff of the mentor program in February. In the three months that followed, the same student missed only four days.
This year, school officials are starting mentoring at the beginning of the school year and bringing in seventh- and eighth-graders.
Manny will face a different arrangement. Roias will have finished his two years as a City Year participant, so he will no longer be at Gilbert Stuart. But he plans to stay in contact with Manny. “Manny’s my small win,” he says.
“Teachers say this all the time.... ‘You need to do good in school,’ ” Roias tells him. “But when I’m saying this, don’t think of me as a teacher.... I’m telling you straight up, you have to do good in school.”
Manny’s reply is instant: “That’s the only option.”