This article is a collaboration between The New Yorker and ProPublica.
On a cold, clear weekday morning in early December, Shepria Johnson pulled up to a small house in Ecorse, Michigan, in an S.U.V. with a decal on the driver’s door which read “Student Wholeness Team.” She looked at an app on her phone. It was her third of ten visits that morning, and she was there to check on a girl and a boy, eleven and nine, who had missed enough days of school to put them on a list of “chronically absent” students at Grandport Academy, in Ecorse, an industrial suburb of Detroit.
In case there was no one home, Johnson wrote the students’ names on a form letter and addressed the envelope to “the parent of Jisaiah and King.” She wrote “parent,” avoiding the plural as she had seen schools do. “If it’s a one-parent household, that might get touchy.”
There was someone home. Kuanticka Prude opened the door; behind her were some of her eight children. Cats darted up and down the front steps, which were garlanded with Christmas decorations. Johnson introduced herself and said that she was concerned about Jisaiah’s and King’s attendance and wanted to see if there was anything the family needed to help them get to school.
“This is King,” Prude said, gesturing to a slender boy with wary eyes, “and this is Jisaiah”—a girl with her hair in thick side buns. Prude, a friendly thirty-two-year-old with multiple nose and lip studs, said she had woken the two up that morning, but they had gone back to bed, assuming she would be at her job, as a security guard at the Fillmore Detroit entertainment venue. By the time she discovered that they hadn’t left for school, it seemed too late to send them. She had set up a nanny cam to see what was going on at the house when she was away, she said, but the cats had chewed it up. She hadn’t been aware until recently how many days they had missed; she had noticed some attempted calls from their school but hadn’t realized what they were about.
“I tell them, ‘Y’all are going to get me in trouble for this,’ ” she told Johnson.
“This is not anything like truancy. We come from a place of support,” Johnson said, in her characteristically upbeat tone. “But, yes, it could lead to that, if they’re not in school, so we want to make sure they understand.”
Back in the S.U.V., Johnson’s composure briefly fell away. “Wow, they are too little to be skipping,” she said under her breath.
Johnson is part of an increasingly popular approach to combatting truancy: she makes home visits to learn why children are missing school and then works with families and schools to get them back on track. She oversees a team of six people in southeastern Michigan who are employed by a Baltimore company called Concentric Educational Solutions, which has contracts with seven small school districts in the Detroit area. Since 2src21, she has been driving back and forth across the Downriver towns southwest of the city, a vast expanse of dollar stores, pot dispensaries, and manufacturing plants—some active, some abandoned. She passes the Marathon refinery, the Great Lakes Steel Works, and the giant Ford Rouge Complex, where this fall she could see the picket line of the United Auto Workers strike.
The strike ended. The crisis that Johnson was dealing with, on the other hand, seemed never-ending. Absenteeism has long been a problem in the Detroit area, as in other places with high poverty rates, but since the coronavirus pandemic it has worsened dramatically. Nationwide, the rate of chronic absenteeism—defined as missing at least ten per cent of school days, or eighteen in a year—nearly doubled between 2src18-19 and 2src21-22, to twenty-eight per cent of students, according to data compiled for the Associated Press by Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford. Michigan’s rate was thirty-nine per cent, the third highest among states. States that have reported data for the most recent school year showed only minimal improvement; some cities have rates of more than forty per cent.
Absenteeism underlies much of what has beset young people in recent years, including falling school achievement, deteriorating mental health—exacerbated by social isolation—and elevated youth violence and car thefts, some occurring during school hours. But schools are using relatively little of the billions of dollars that they received in federal pandemic-recovery funds to address absenteeism. The issue has also attracted surprisingly little attention from leaders, elected or otherwise, and education coverage in the national media has focussed heavily on culture-war fights.
This void created an opportunity for a fledgling company like Concentric. Founded in 2src1src, by David Heiber, a former school administrator, the company grew slowly. It had only about twenty employees before Covid ignited the business. Concentric now has more than a hundred employees, and it recently received a five-million-dollar investment from a social-venture-capital firm to fuel expansion.
“Right place, right time, right pandemic,” Heiber told me sardonically.
Kuanticka Prude had her first child when she was thirteen, so she finished her education at the city’s maternity academy. Before that, though, she’d liked going to school. “It was fun! Who wanted to be at home and listen to your mom complain all day?” she told me, when I spoke with her after Johnson’s visit. “But, then, we didn’t have Covid and cities being shut down.”
During the pandemic, Detroit’s public schools, where her kids were enrolled at the time, remained closed to in-person instruction for nearly a year. “They did school online. I hated it,” she said. “They took it as a joke most of the time, playing in class, because they felt like they were at home and they could do that.” After the family moved to Ecorse, last summer, the mind-set lingered. “They got too comfortable at home,” she said.
This is a dynamic that Johnson has repeatedly encountered. When classes were virtual, students would log on some days, and some days they wouldn’t. The world did not end. For parents, it might seem easier that way. No dragging kids out of bed before daybreak. No wrestling them into proper clothes. No getting them to the bus stop as one’s own work waited. “You were able to just do the things you needed to do,” Johnson said. “Everybody was comfortable. It was, ‘I can go to my computer, my baby is in my room on the computer. We’re good.’ ”
After that hiatus, relearning old behaviors was hard. “If I were a child, and I could stay at home on my computer, in my room, and play with my little toys on the side, pick up the game for your break or lunchtime, how hard is it to sit in a school building for seven hours?” she said. “It takes us to help build those habits, and I don’t think just one person can do it alone.”
Some parents, unimpressed by what instruction consisted of during remote learning, didn’t see missing school as that consequential. Some simply liked having their kids around. “You’re dealing with a different generation here. This is a parent generation that plays video games with their children,” Steven McGhee, the superintendent of the Harper Woods district, another Concentric client near Detroit, said. “When we were kids, we were out of the house and at school. There was no option. This became optional.”
Even before Covid, some students in the Detroit area had been able to choose online-only learning as an offering from public or charter schools. Since the pandemic, many schools have made it easier for students to try to catch up from missed days with online material.
The spectrum from in-person to virtual to nothing at all can get pretty fuzzy. One early afternoon, I saw an eight-year-old boy with headphones on standing outside a house in Ecorse, playing a video game on a tablet. His mother had died of a heroin overdose two years earlier, and his father said that he had enrolled his son in an online academy, because their housing situation was uncertain. Usually, there were three hours of instruction daily, he said, but the Wi-Fi hadn’t been working properly. “He’s done for the day,” his father said.
Families faced other hurdles as well. One student’s father had died a month earlier, and in the previous six months two of his grandparents had also died; his mother was suffering from heart disease that prevented her from working, and she could no longer afford school clothes. Johnson alerted the student’s principal, who had a special fund for such needs.
The mother of a middle-school girl had been in a car crash; when a Concentric employee visited, the mother had trouble even coming to the door, and she explained that she couldn’t get her daughter to school anymore. A high-school boy had moved in with his grandmother, but he was sleeping on the porch for lack of a bed; Concentric bought him one. A superintendent purchased a washer and dryer after hearing from Concentric that some students weren’t coming to school because they didn’t have any clean clothes. “Once you have these conversations, you know that there are real-life events that happen, there are real-life circumstances, where they’re just not able,” Johnson said.
Still, there were circumstances in which negligence did seem to be an issue. Johnson, who is thirty-four and has three kids, could feel her natural sympathy being tested: “I’ve had a parent tell me, ‘Well, hey, she wasn’t there because of my life problems.’ I get it, but you can’t just leave a student out of school because you have issues.”
Sometimes parents asked Johnson if she was a truant officer, and she would reply, “No, I’m a professional student advocate,” which was what Concentric called its outreach workers. “If you’re a truant officer, they’re defensive,” she told me. “They automatically assume you’re here to get them in trouble.”
Within the U.S., the concept of mandatory schooling can be traced to the seventeenth century, when the Puritans of Massachusetts positioned it as fundamental to Christian society, but this tenet was challenged by the Industrial Revolution, as children went to work in the mills. After Massachusetts instituted compulsory-schooling policies in the eighteen-forties and fifties, enforcement was spotty. But, in 1873, the state passed a law requiring attendance between the ages of eight and twelve, for at least twenty weeks a year. The law was enforced by agents of the school committee—truant officers—with fines of up to five dollars per week. Sixteen years later, the age range was expanded to fourteen, and a year after that the required term became thirty weeks a year. W. E. B. Du Bois, reflecting on his upbringing in western Massachusetts in the eighteen-seventies and eighties, emphasized his school routine. “I was brought up from earliest years with the idea of regular attendance at school,” he wrote. “This was partly because the schools of Great Barrington were near at hand, simple but good, well-taught, and truant laws were enforced.”
By the 189src-91 school year, more than two hundred of Massachusetts’s three hundred and fifty-one towns had an average daily attendance of ninety per cent, and only eleven were below eighty per cent. During the following decades, mandatory schooling spread nationwide. William Reese, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, found that just six per cent of adolescents were in high school in 189src but that by 193src half of them were. By 195src, attendance was so universal that those who weren’t in school were called dropouts. “By the early twentieth century, the truth is that you’re supposed to be in school, and, in the long reach of history, that’s a remarkable fact,” Reese told me. “It became a universal norm. Other European nations sort of caught up eventually, but America was in the vanguard of this.”
Cities often employed truant officers, who roamed the streets searching for children to corral, and repeat offenders risked being brought to juvenile court. But in recent decades many areas have moved away from legal remedies, following a general shift toward less punitive juvenile justice. In addition, experts—citing psychology literature and evidence from states that still meted out consequences—argued that threats were unlikely to be effective. “Punitive rather than positive is not the best approach,” Michael Gottfried, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, said.
Enforcement of state truancy laws has grown rarer. In August, Missouri’s highest court affirmed the sentencing of two parents to at least a week in jail for their young children’s absences, but most of the movement has been in the other direction. In 2src19, for instance, New Mexico removed the role of district attorneys in enforcing attendance. (The state, which had some of the longest school closures, saw its chronic absenteeism rates more than double after the pandemic, to forty per cent, the second-highest rate among states, after Alaska.)
The case of Kamala Harris is instructive. As the San Francisco district attorney in the mid-two-thousands, she made headlines for prosecuting parents of extremely truant students. “I believe that a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime,” Harris said, during her run for state attorney general, in 2src1src. “So, I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy.” During that campaign, she pushed for a statewide law that made it a misdemeanor for parents if their kids were chronically absent, punishable by a fine of up to two thousand dollars or a year in jail. In 2src13, the state amended the law, giving school principals more leeway to excuse absences.
When Harris ran for the 2src2src Democratic nomination for President, she received heavy criticism for her efforts. She expressed contrition, saying that she had hoped the law would simply prod districts to offer more resources to aid truant students. “My regret is that I have now heard stories where, in some jurisdictions, D.A.s have criminalized the parents,” she said. “And I regret that that has happened.”
In recent years, however, efforts to fight absenteeism have tended to involve nudges, not threats. In 2src15, Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist at Harvard, co-founded EveryDay Labs, which sent letters and text messages to families with reminders about the importance of school, and statistics about how their children’s attendance compared with classmates’. Parents could also respond to a chatbot about challenges that they were facing in getting their kids to school. The company was hired by some fifty school districts, but its approach was most effective with milder cases of absenteeism, less so with more severe ones.
David Heiber, Concentric’s founder, is an advocate of direct intervention, perhaps because he wishes he had received it when he was young. Heiber, who is forty-seven, was brought up in Delaware by his maternal grandparents. He had some contact with his mother, a white woman who suffered from alcoholism, but he did not know his father, who was Black, until he was an adult. His grandfather, whom he called Dad, was a truck driver, and he and Heiber’s grandmother—Mom—provided him with a stable middle-class upbringing. In high school, he was a track star who attracted scholarship offers.
In his senior year, his grandfather had a fatal heart attack while Christmas shopping. Heiber went back to school just two days later and, receiving no social-work support—although a gym teacher let him play Ping-Pong for hours on end—he “spun out of control,” he told me. He was expelled from school, convicted of burglary, and sentenced to some five years in prison. While he was incarcerated, his grandmother died of cancer. “I just decided, Something has to happen,” he said. “I got to do something.”
He earned his G.E.D. behind bars and a judge released him after twenty-seven months, on the condition that he enroll in college. He attended Lincoln University, a historically Black institution in Pennsylvania, and got a job teaching high school in Baltimore, which he did for a year before taking an administrative position at a different local high school. But, in 2srcsrc6, he faced one set of misdemeanor charges related to a breakup, which were later dropped, and another set, he told me, for his role interceding in a fight between students at a high school in Washington, D.C., which he had been visiting as an observer. That case resulted in four years of probation. “It was a rough period,” Heiber said. “Very few people go in a straight trajectory.”
In 2srcsrc7, he moved to Washington, D.C., to become the director of student services for a small group of charter schools. One day, Heiber and some colleagues were wondering what to do about truant students, and it occurred to him that one lived just across the street from the school. He suggested going to the student’s home. There, his grandmother said that he was attending a different school. For Heiber, it was an epiphany: to get the right information, you needed to go to students’ homes, both to show families that the system cared about them and to gain a better understanding of what was keeping the students away—unreliable transportation, depression, lack of clothes, or myriad other factors. “There was a list of maybe two hundred or so, and we just thought, Ask them questions,” he said.
Heiber came to realize that there was an art to conducting visits in ways that didn’t make families feel judged. In one home, a cockroach fell onto his shoulder, and he managed to keep himself from recoiling, “because it would have made the whole conversation go different,” he said.
In 2src1src, he was approached by the NewSchools Venture Fund, a philanthropy looking to invest in Black entrepreneurs. He received a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to help create Concentric, with the initial aim of advising districts on how to improve home visits by teachers. But it became apparent that many districts were having trouble getting teachers to do home visits at all and, instead, were interested in having Concentric do them.
Heiber embraced the new mission, becoming an evangelist for what he saw as an underappreciated aspect of the education system. Most school systems “pay the least amount of money for the most important job,” he said. “I’m not saying that teaching is not a very important job. But they got to be in school to be taught.”
His initial contracts were primarily in Detroit. He met several administrators in the school system there, mostly Black men roughly his own age, who then left to lead districts in the city’s working-class inner suburbs. They hired Concentric and recommended it to others in the region.
The frequent travel to Detroit was a strain on Heiber and his family, as was the scramble for new clients. He incurred bills for unpaid taxes and home improvements, leading to court proceedings in Prince George’s County, a Maryland suburb of Washington where he lived. Then came the post-pandemic boom, with new business in Maryland districts. Contracts ranged from fifty thousand dollars for home visits in a small district to several million dollars for home visits, plus mentoring and tutoring, in some large ones. In 2src21 and 2src22, Concentric hired dozens of employees, many of them young Black college graduates. It gave them two weeks of training, which included instruction as basic as how to knock on doors. “I tell everyone, ‘Knock a little harder, but don’t knock like the police,’ ” a Concentric manager said. The job mostly paid on an hourly basis, as much as thirty-five dollars per hour. The “professional student advocates” dressed well, in black polo shirts with the company logo or, sometimes, in suits. “I didn’t want people to go into a building and not know that they were our P.S.A.s,” Heiber said.
The company’s rapid expansion, with revenue reaching eight million dollars last academic year, brought growing pains. Some employees went weeks without getting paid, as income from new contracts arrived too late for payroll, and the company had to turn to lenders, several of whom later filed suit for nonpayment. (Most of the legal actions against Concentric and Heiber have been settled.)
Concentric’s growth only accelerated as the new school year began. For many districts, tracking down missing students was existential. Several million children had left public schools for private and parochial ones or for homeschooling; several hundred thousand were simply unaccounted for. With fewer students, some districts faced teacher layoffs and school closures.
To bring more order to the expansion, Heiber hired experienced managers. In early October came an announcement that a firm called New Markets Venture Partners was investing five million dollars in Concentric.
One of the firm’s partners, who was in charge of the investment, told Heiber that Concentric was worth fifteen million dollars. The federal pandemic funding that some districts were using to pay Concentric would fade in 2src24, but many districts were using state money, which would continue. “He thinks we could be a hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar business in five to seven years,” Heiber said.
Every few weeks, Concentric received a fresh list of absent kids from each district, often about fifty names. Shepria Johnson’s list brought her to tiny bungalows, ramshackle apartments, and public-housing complexes. Sometimes she arrived at homes that appeared abandoned. “I pull up and am, like, No way, nobody lives here,” she said. “And I would knock on the door, and I see people peeking out, and I think, Oh, my God, someone does live here.”
She was able to stave off demoralization by feeling a purpose far greater than she’d had at her previous jobs—she’d worked as a manager at a shoe store and at a Verizon store, while making efforts to complete her college degree. “You don’t know what you’ll go and see, but if you’re not doing it then you can’t help,” she said. “It doesn’t make me sad anymore, it’s just, ‘How can I help?’ ”
She took pride in her ability to get parents to open up to her. “They go off of your energy. If you’re at the door, and you’re upset with me, I’m not going to get upset with you,” she said. “We should all consider the person on the other side of the door. We know what we’re trying to do—we’re trying to make a difference—but they don’t know that when we’re knocking at the door.”
The conversation was only the first half of the job; next was relaying what information she had learned to school officials or to Concentric employees stationed at schools. A mother in a mobile-home park said that her son, who was in high school, needed tutoring; another mother said that her son was always late to school because he hated algebra, his first period, and suggested changing his schedule. Even when Johnson found an address uninhabited, with nothing but a can of air freshener visible in the empty living room, she considered it useful, because it alerted the school that it needed updated contact information for a student.
These sorts of home visits are so new that there has been little chance to assess them. A Johns Hopkins University evaluation of Concentric in the Baltimore school district—its largest contract—during the 2src21-22 school year reported that a majority of home visits found nobody there. The evaluators struggled to judge the impact even of the visits that did reach family members, because there was no attendance data from the pandemic year of 2src2src-21 to compare the new numbers with.
The Johns Hopkins study found, however, that school administrators praised the company’s efforts. Superintendents in Michigan echoed this praise. “The number of companies that pledge or promise to address inequities or deficits that are experienced in urban schools—it’s exhausting,” Derrick Coleman, the superintendent of Michigan’s River Rouge school district, told me. But Concentric, he said, is “able to go into places that many educators are reluctant to go into, for safety reasons, and make families feel comfortable. They create psychological safety to share whatever those challenges are. And that then gives us data and information to make adjustments.”
Connecticut, which has launched a home-visit initiative in fifteen districts, has taken a slightly different approach: outreach workers call ahead to schedule visits with families, which can last longer than an hour. A study found that the program—which is carried out by school employees or community members and which has cost twenty-four million dollars—resulted in an increase in attendance of fifteen to twenty per cent among middle and high schoolers nine months after the first visit.
But Johnson preferred arriving unscheduled, believing that it gave her a clearer picture of the household context. “When you’re on the spot, you have the pure parent,” she said. “If you schedule it, they’re prepared, they already know why you’re coming, they already know their story, but you’re not getting the raw reason.”
On a couple of occasions, visits by members of Michigan’s Concentric team uncovered situations so troubling that they prompted calls to child-protective services. More often, the team found a different recourse. Michigan is one of the few states that still enforce legal repercussions for truancy: a school police officer or administrator or a Concentric P.S.A. can send a JC src1 form to the prosecutor’s office for Wayne County, where most of the Concentric districts are.
If the prosecutor’s office finds sufficient evidence, it typically offers students who are ten or older a diversion program—the chance to improve attendance and have their records wiped clean. If that fails, students may be brought before a judge. (Cases of younger kids are referred to the adult division, and charges may be brought against their parents.)
Johnson, her colleagues, and the superintendents in the Concentric districts in Wayne County all said that the JC src1 forms have been a valuable tool in the most extreme cases—sometimes the court would even threaten to block parents’ welfare payments. “It was very powerful,” Josha Talison, the superintendent in Ecorse, said.
But during the pandemic, the superintendents said, the process broke down—it took much longer to hear from the prosecutor’s office about forms that had been filed. “When the pandemic started, they just stopped doing it,” Talison told me. Stiles Simmons, his counterpart in the Westwood district, which is nearby, told me the same. “The courthouse pretty much shut down,” he said. “And then there was a backlog.”
(Robert Heimbuch, the chief of the juvenile division at the prosecutor’s office, said that his team had continued to handle JC src1 forms, shifting meetings and hearings to Zoom, but that some steps in the process might have taken longer. He didn’t know if referrals for chronically absent students had fallen off, because JC src1s were filed for all manner of juvenile-delinquency cases, and his office did not keep a tally of how many were for truancy.)
After a morning of home visits with Johnson, I met with Sarah Lenhoff, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University, who started studying absenteeism in 2src16. She joined a coalition to tackle the problem in Detroit and became convinced that the crisis is now so severe that it requires a greater response. “We’re thinking about school attendance all wrong,” she said. “It’s societal.”
Several of the Wayne County superintendents working with Concentric agreed. “The issue of chronic absenteeism is much broader than what the school and its partners can handle,” Simmons said. “There needs to be something else done.” It was a compelling argument: throughout the country, local and state government officials, school boards, and others had decided that it was in the public interest to close school buildings for a year or more, and now it was going to take a group effort to rebuild the norms. The issue couldn’t be left to individual schools or districts—or to a single company.
Society, as a whole, needed to reinforce—as it had in Massachusetts more than a century ago—the importance of school. It was where children awakened to the world’s opportunities, where they learned how to be productive citizens, and, for some, where they found a daily routine and regular meals.
Instead, as Lenhoff noted, families often got the opposite message. Inadequate infrastructure had led Detroit to cancel school for several days last year, because of excessive heat. Schools had also closed in the face of forecasts of snow which brought no actual snow. Districts get penalized by the state’s funding formula if attendance drops below seventy-five per cent on any day, and so they may close schools when they fear that too few kids will show up. “If you have that happen often enough, it does erode your feeling that the system is there for us, and not just when it’s convenient for them,” Lenhoff said.
One day, shortly after noon, I encountered several fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys who had recently arrived from Latin America and were walking a dog in the quiet streets of River Rouge. But they weren’t playing hooky. School had been closed that day, owing to plumbing problems.
A short drive away, a middle-school girl was playing in a front yard, while her older sister and some of her friends, in their late teens and early twenties, were hanging out in a nearby car, one with a baby on her lap. The younger sister was also not missing school: it had been only a half day in her district, to allow for professional-development courses.
Asked why absenteeism had increased, the young women didn’t hesitate. “That’s what the corona did,” Serenity, who is twenty-one, told me. Now “they’re sending the kids back to school, and they don’t want to no more. They want to stay home and play on their computers.”
When December arrived, the weather became another obstacle: leaving home was even less appealing when it was dark and cold out. One mother told Johnson that her son had been missing school because she hadn’t been able to buy him a winter jacket.
Another mother told Johnson that she had just been crying on the toilet: her rent had doubled, so she wasn’t going to be able to afford Christmas presents for her kids. The rent increase had forced her to pick up a second job, at a fast-food restaurant, which had disrupted her school drop-off and pickup routines. Johnson alerted the children’s school and suggested that it put the family on its list for gift donations.
In Ecorse, Kuanticka Prude was worried about money, too. She had less coming in now than a year earlier, when she had been working a second job, at a Wendy’s. The reason her nanny cam wasn’t working, she told me, was not the cats, as she had said to Johnson, but because she couldn’t afford the monthly payments.
But she told me that she might quit her security job, too, to better monitor the schooling of her kids, who also included a girl in ninth grade, twin girls about to turn eight (who were in special-education programs), and a four-year-old girl in preschool. “I’m going to get it together,” she said. With Jisaiah and King, “it’s going to take me to sit them down and talk to them really good and let them know, to understand what they’re doing and causing. Because this is not a game or a joke. Not only can you get people in trouble but you need an education.”
The next morning, it was just getting light as Jisaiah and King were scheduled to bring their little sister two blocks away for her preschool bus. A cat pawed at the front door, as if to remind them. And then they emerged. They were a few minutes late, which meant that King needed to wave at the bus as Jisaiah hustled her sister down the sidewalk, a hand on her shoulder. Then Prude’s mother emerged to load the two of them and their older sister into her car. On this day, they were going to make it. ♦
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