02/07/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

Mentors Play Key Role in Getting Students to School

When school started two years ago, DeVanya a high-performing student from the Bronx, was there with her bright purple sneakers and shiny new binders emblazoned with hearts. By November, she and her binders had missed 7 days of school; grades started to wobble. By spring, her absences were rapidly mounting. By year-end, she had missed more than 20 days. Teachers told her to shape up - that she was on track for failure. They were correct. And she wasn't alone.

DeVanya was one of more than 200,000 NYC public school students - 1 out of every 5 -- who missed a month or more of school last year; one of an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students nationwide. Tragically, these numbers are highest in our high-need communities where school offers our nation's youth the best pathway out of poverty. With renewed political debate about stagnant social mobility and stark income inequality, policymakers must consider the harmful effect of chronic school absence. It is well-documented that chronic absenteeism from kindergarten forward lowers academic achievement, increases dropout rates, weakens college and career readiness -- and fuels juvenile crime that can lead to a lifetime spent in and out of prison.

Studies suggest that students don't wake up one day and suddenly decide to quit; they begin a slow fade of attendance years earlier until it's easier to drop out than catch up.

What if we as a nation could identify the approximately 1 million kids who drop out each year - and target them before they gave up on school? Chronic absenteeism is that flag - but schools are rarely required to report or track it, or systemically identify those students in any meaningful way.

In fact, while widespread, chronic absenteeism is usually unacknowledged. That's because schools typically review only what's known as "average daily attendance," which can mask the often large pockets of chronically absent students. What's not measured, is not noticed -- or fixed.

The causes of chronic absenteeism are complex. DeVanya "went chronic" when she became the designated caretaker for a frequently ill family member. Others can't go because of issues ranging from health to housing; or won't go because of bullying, or gang threats; or simply don't go because no one seems to care or they do not see a reason to attend.

But there is good news.

Cities can have a significant impact on improving student attendance. Former New York Mayor Bloomberg created an inter-agency task force that included the departments of education, health, youth development, homeless services, child welfare, law enforcement, and public-private partners, to develop an all-hands-on-deck effort to tackle the issue citywide. The city then implemented the country's most comprehensive effort to address absenteeism in 100 high-need schools, serving more than 60,000 students. It included metric-driven "success mentors," new early warning data tools, incentive programs, a citywide Ad Council campaign, celebrity wake-up calls, new models for connecting local resources to schools, among other steps.

The results are heartening. A recent report by Johns Hopkins University found that pilot schools that received these interventions outperformed comparison schools in reducing chronic absenteeism in elementary, middle and high schools. One of the task force's signature initiatives -- pairing chronically absent students with "Success Mentors" -- resulted in these students gaining more than 51,000 additional days of school last year-- approximately 2 additional weeks per student. The largest impact was on the students who need school most: minority students living in poverty had a 15% reduction, those in temporary housing 31%. These reductions brought important academic benefits as well. And previously chronically absent high school students with mentors were 52% more likely to remain in school.

We also are seeing strong results with Diplomas Now, which is keeping kids on track in 13 cities by solving problems with attendance, behavior and course performance. Supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the PepsiCo Foundation and others, Diplomas Now brings together academic reforms from Talent Development Secondary at Johns Hopkins, young adult mentors from City Year and trained case managers from Communities In Schools for students with enormous needs.

The New York City results and efforts in other cities show that targeting chronic absenteeism is one of the best ways to raise achievement among children. The national Attendance Works campaign offers practical solutions for communities that want to make attendance a priority. Even in this partisan political climate, few can argue with the value of classrooms over courtrooms.

DeVanya was lucky. Her absences were flagged, and her Success Mentor helped resolve her issues, leading to her nearly perfect attendance, and nearly perfect grades. One less student on the trajectory for dropping out. There can be more. And must be. The stakes for our cities, and our country, are too high to look the other way.

Dr. Robert Balfanz is the Co-Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Leslie Cornfeld was Chair of Mayor Bloomberg's Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism & School Engagement.