With a team dedicated to it, Detroit’s UPrep schools seeing remarkable success battling absenteeism

Buddy Moorehouse
Mar 3, 2024 3:07:34 PM

On a national scale, one of the biggest problems facing schools is absenteeism. If students aren't in school, they can’t learn. The problem is particularly acute in urban areas, including Detroit, where the Detroit Public Schools Community District reported a chronic absenteeism rate of 66% in 2022-23, meaning only 34% of students were regularly attending school.

Statewide, the numbers aren’t much more encouraging. For the 2022-23 school year, Michigan had a chronic absenteeism rate of 30.8%, which means less than 70% of students were regularly attending school.

In the face of all that, the 10 charter schools in Detroit which are part of the UPrep network are seeing remarkable success in battling absenteeism. Two years ago, Detroit 90/90 – the organization that manages the three charter school districts and 10 school buildings in the UPrep network – hired a team of four people whose sole job is to handle absenteeism.

The result?

“We're at like 89% of students that come to school daily,” said Amelia Norwood, a former charter school principal who heads up the absenteeism team as Detroit 90/90’s Assistant Director of Attendance. “We’ve seen remarkable success since we started. Our district's goal is 90%, so we're right there at the threshold. We believe if we get out there a little bit more, a little bit harder, doing a little bit more visits, we can reach 90% by the end of the school year.”

So whereas the statewide absenteeism rate is 30% and the DPSCD rate is 66%, at the UPrep charter schools, it’s only 11%.

Truly remarkable.

And Amelia says their formula for success isn’t complicated. It’s a lot of hard work in the right areas, along with dedicating the resources to make it all possible.

Coming out of the pandemic, the UPrep schools were noticing the same thing that other schools nationwide were seeing – parents and families were reluctant to send their children back to school.

“I think due to the pandemic, parents got really familiar with having their kids stay at home,” Amelia said. “And what we found was that our parents were often calling and asking if we offer virtual learning because they don't want their kid to come to school because they're still afraid. So we would go over the law that says you need to send your child to school.”

When they started to see how bad the post-pandemic absenteeism issue was, Detroit 90/90 made the decision to hire a team of four people to focus on the problem. Amelia would head up the team, and she would have three assistants, one for each of the charter school districts in the UPrep network (University Preparatory Academy, University Prep Science and Math, and University Prep Art and Design). The goal is to make sure that not a single student falls through the cracks.

“We’re responsible for going out looking for students that have chronic absenteeism,” Amelia said. “That’s our main focus, our main job, and most of our time is spent in the field. So we're actually going out, we're knocking on doors, having conversations with parents, we're trying to find out why kids are not in school. And if they have a reason such as a lack of transportation, we offer bus cards. If they don't have a school uniform, we provide them with a uniform. If there’s anything going on with mental health, emotional, social needs, then we put them in touch with the correct people at the school, whether it’s a social worker or another resource.”

Amelia said the process begins with the teacher. Once the teacher identifies a student who has missed a day or two with no excuse, it goes to the school’s office manager, who makes a phone call or text message to the family. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, Amelia and her team aggressively spring into action.

“The next day, we go out, and we’re knocking on doors,” she said. “We're seeing where Johnny is. We even go at various times to the parents' work. If they aren’t home, we leave a door hanger on their door and immediately once they get that, they'll call us. There are some cases at the high school level where they don’t even realize the student has been missing school.”

And for the most, parents and families are appreciative of the efforts they make.

“We haven't had any hostile parents,” Amelia said. “Everybody’s been receptive. Sometimes they'll invite us into the home. Sometimes we stand on the porch and just have a conversation through the door until they really know why we’re there.”

Amelia said they’ve also changed their approach when necessary.

“Last year, the first year of the program, we were trying to figure it out,” she said. “We didn't do as many home visits. Most of our time was spent meeting parents at the school, if they showed up, or we called parents. This year, I took a different approach. I said the majority of our time is going to be spent knocking on doors. And that’s made a big difference in getting kids back into school.”

In looking at the numbers, their approach is obviously working.

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