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Want To Make A School Better? Get Kids To Show Up

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At 7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, you'll find Mark Gaither standing on Gough Street in southeast Baltimore. He's outside Wolfe Street Academy, the neighborhood elementary school where he's the principal.

Gaither has a huge umbrella in case it rains, and thick gloves for when it snows. He's here each morning to greet students and families as they come to school — which should make for at least 225 "good mornings."

This daily greeting is one part of the school's strategy to fix chronic absence and turn around what was once a failing school.

Absenteeism will be front-and-center today at the U.S. Department of Education, which hosts an online summit on strategies to combat chronic absence.

Chronic absence is defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year — just two days a month. Research shows that such students are way more likely to fall behind and, eventually, drop out. Addressing the problem goes way beyond skipping school; a mix of truancy entangled with illnesses and family problems.

At Wolfe Street Academy, many of the families work at the nearby Port of Baltimore. Most of Gaither's students speak Spanish at home, and 96 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Ten years ago, this school was in bad shape: Test scores were terrible, and the state was threatening to take over. When Gaither was tasked with turning the school around, he started with one big goal: Get kids to show up.

He launched a kid-by-kid approach — heavily focused on data — to raise attendance.

"If you can crack it, you're gonna get a lot of bang for your buck bag, in terms of improvement," says Gaither.

By 2014, Wolfe Street Academy's test performance is better, and the school had just a handful of chronically absent kids.

"This is like the biggest thing in school improvement that people have paid the least attention to," says Robert Balfanz, who studies absenteeism at Johns Hopkins University. He compares it to ignoring pathogens in a hospital.

"You put all this effort into helping the patient," Balfanz says, "and then because you don't pay attention to the bacteria, they get sick and die on you."

He has studied high school dropouts for years, and in his research he kept seeing a red flag: chronic absences in elementary and middle school. Students who miss a couple days a month fall behind in reading — and if they can't read, they can't pass tests.

"To miss a month of school when you're 11 and 12, there's got to be something behind that," Balfanz says — and at Wolfe Street Academy there were. The list included things like tooth decay, mental health issues and not having a winter coat.

Gaither reached out to community organizations for help. The University of Maryland now sends dental students to conduct check-ups, a mental health professional from Johns Hopkins works with students, and there's a box tucked away in the cafeteria with donated clothes.

"It's a common sense idea," Gaither says, but, he adds, "it's a complex marker to move, because there's so many different pieces.

One major component: parents.

Every Monday, he opens up the school library for parents to visit. They can check out books, learn how they can help with homework, and get comfortable in the school environment.

"When you build a relationship, people open up about needs," says Gaither. "They feel comfortable coming to you knowing that you might be able to do something to help."

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