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A California school is addressing chronic absenteeism at the root

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Too many children in the United States are missing way too much school. The rate of kindergarten through 12th grade students considered chronically absence has doubled since before the pandemic. And one of the grades where children are missing the most school might surprise you. It's kindergarten. NPR's Cory Turner visited one California school district that's doing something about it by trying to make sure their youngest learners want to come to school.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: In California's Central Valley sits the Livingston Union School District. It covers a huge stretch of wide-open country known for its dairies, chickens, grapes and a whole lot of sweet potatoes.

MAYTE RAMIREZ: Good morning, love. (Speaking Spanish). Love the smile. (Speaking Spanish).

TURNER: At one elementary school, Principal Mayte Ramirez is the first face kids see as they're dropped off at school. She flits easily between English and Spanish. Most of the district's children, more than 80%, are Hispanic.

RAMIREZ: Can I get smiles before we walk in? There we go. Have a good day, guys.

TURNER: Ramirez is doing everything she can to make her school a warm, welcoming place for her 5-year-olds.

RAMIREZ: Morning. (Speaking Spanish).

TURNER: Last year in California, more than 1 in 3 kindergarteners was chronically absent. And research suggests those children are less likely to be proficient readers by third grade.

RAMIREZ: Hurry, Matthew. We're late, babe. We'll get your brother.

TURNER: When an SUV pulls up a few minutes late, there's a little boy in the back seat, folded into a ball of shyness and anxiety. He does not want to go to school today, and his mom, who's driving, isn't sure what to do.

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

TURNER: But Principal Ramirez knows him.

RAMIREZ: Come and help me, my love. Come on, you're going to have a great day.

TURNER: She opens the rear door, leans all the way in and gently extends her hand to the little boy. He takes it and climbs out.

RAMIREZ: You have a great day. Let's go, Santos. (Speaking Spanish).

TURNER: And together, they walk to class. This is why I'm here in Livingston, not because of what's wrong, but because of what's right.

SUJIE SHIN: We were just wowed by what we saw the moment that we stepped onto Livingston's campuses.

TURNER: Sujie Shin is with the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, and she's been pouring over attendance data for all of the state's roughly 1,000 school districts, searching for solutions to this absenteeism crisis. And that's when she noticed Livingston's kindergarten absenteeism rate is much lower than the state average, not just now, but it has been for years. Why?

SHIN: There is this real intense focus on creating and maintaining relationships every single moment possible.

TURNER: In education circles, this is known as school climate or school culture. Whatever you call it, Shin says, the research is clear. One of the best predictors of a child's success in school is how they answer one simple question.

SHIN: Is there an adult at school that cares about you - yes or no? That's it. That's the question that can tell you everything.

TURNER: You could hear it with Principal Ramirez and the little boy who didn't want to go to school, and you can hear it across town, too, at another elementary school.

DIANA DICKEY: Welcome, good morning. Come on through.

TURNER: Diana Dickey teaches kindergarten and greets children as they arrive for breakfast.

DICKEY: Hello, Paulina. Good morning. Nice to see you.

PAULINA: Thanks.

TURNER: And then, inside her classroom, the kids gather on the learning carpet where Mrs. Dickey does something I've never heard before.

DICKEY: Now, boys and girls, we do have one person that is not here today.

TURNER: One little boy is absent.

DICKEY: So if I find out if he's sick or something, we'll - I'll let you guys know so that we'll be happy to welcome him back when he comes back. But right now...

TURNER: On the whiteboard are individual photos of every child in the class, and the kids move the boy's photo inside this big heart that's been drawn on the board. As Mrs. Dickey says, it's to remind them to keep him in their hearts while he's absent. Finally, the kids do a little chant.

DIANA DICKEY AND UNIDENTIFIED KINDERGARTNERS: (Chanting) Boom, boom, pow. We miss you.

UNIDENTIFIED KINDERGARTNERS: (Chanting) And we wish you well.

TURNER: This simple little ceremony sends a powerful message to these children. When they miss school, they're not just absent. They're missed - because they're valued by their teacher and their classmates. In another classroom, teacher Lupe Fuentes takes roll, and no one's absent.

LUPE FUENTES: Boys and girls, guess what?

UNIDENTIFIED KINDERGARTNER #1: What?

UNIDENTIFIED KINDERGARTNER #2: Everybody's here.

FUENTES: Everybody's here. Are we ready?

UNIDENTIFIED KINDERGARTNERS: Yeah.

FUENTES: Ready? Ready, go.

UNIDENTIFIED KINDERGARTNERS: Hip, hip, hurray. Everyone is here today.

FUENTES: One more time louder. Go.

UNIDENTIFIED KINDERGARTNERS: Hip, hip, hurray.

TURNER: And if you're not convinced by their enthusiasm, we spoke with some two dozen parents and caregivers, including Erika Zurita, whose daughter is in kindergarten in Livingston.

ERIKA ZURITA: She loves it. She's excited for school every morning. This spring break that we had she kept asking me, are we going to school tomorrow? Are we going to school tomorrow? I miss my teacher, my school, my classmates. She loves it.

TURNER: By building a school culture where the children feel valued, Mrs. Dickey says students also learn to value and help each other.

DICKEY: We're talking about attendance, right? And so there's a little guy that is a little hesitant sometimes to coming to school or to walking through the hallway to line up to go into the classroom.

TURNER: It's morning drop-off, and she points to a little boy, a kindergartner, who's approaching slowly. He looks apprehensive, even a little scared. Though it's warm outside, he has a fleece blanket wrapped around his shoulders for comfort. Mrs. Dickey tells me the staff spent a long time trying to figure out, how can they help this boy feel better, safer about coming to school?

DICKEY: And so now we have this little boy, who is a classmate, wait for him, and they walk in together.

TURNER: Indeed, another little boy I hadn't even noticed, named Sebastian, is leaning against the wall waiting patiently. I ask him why.

SEBASTIAN: Because I take him to the class. I always play with him. I show him how to do a lot of things. I'm a nice friend.

TURNER: Sebastian reaches out his hand, and the other boy, with the blanket, takes it. And the relief in that boy's face is palpable. They walk into school together hand in hand. It's a mirror image of where this story began. Only instead of the grown-ups doing the helping, it's the children helping each other.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Livingston, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.