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Mentors Help Drive Attendance At Austin Schools

Claire McInerny
Teacher Kristyn Booth has mentored seventh-grader Joe West since he started at Martin Middle School. Joe says his attendance has improved and his behavior is now "off the chain.""

Students in Central Texas miss more days of school than kids in any other part of the state.

Around 10 percent of local students are chronically absent, meaning they miss more than 18 school days a year. A quarter of Austin 12th-graders miss that much school.

Chronic absenteeism was the subject of a conference Monday hosted by the E3 Alliance, an education nonprofit in Austin. One solution E3 sees to chronic absenteeism is mentoring, which is happening at a few schools in Austin.

Kristyn Booth, a social studies teacher at Martin Middle School, is a mentor to seventh-grader Joe West. He stops by her classroom every day after school for a quick check-in. 

“How was your day? What’s your homework look like? What do you need? Do you need anything at home or at school?" she said she asks him. "Because, you know, whole child. We need everything to make a go at it in this world."

Booth and Joe have worked together since he started at Martin last year. Not every student at the school has a mentor, but Joe was designated as a student who needed a little more help.

“His name was on every list that needed attention," Booth said, "whether it was for discipline, or attendance, or low academics.”

Joe said he now sees there was one thing affecting all those issues – from bad grades to bad behavior.

“My attendance used to be down," he said. "I used to never come to school; I used to be absent, absent, absent, absent.”

He and Booth began meeting regularly and figured out one reason he hated coming to school was because he was so tired. She bought him a watch with an alarm that went off when he should go to bed, rather than staying up all night watching movies. They dug into other stuff, too, like navigating social situations and working through academic challenges. Joe said this relationship with a mentor made him a better student.

“My behavior is off the chain," he said. "I used to be doing a lot of bad stuff, until we really got that connection, and I started to behave ... very well.”

Monday's conference focused on creating more opportunities like this for students who are frequently absent.

Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette, who works with E3 Alliance on absenteeism, says mentoring and reducing absences is important to her because it prepares students for college.

“[Mentoring] gives a student a safe place to come and share things that may be troubling them – or not troubling them – or [if] they just want advice about [something]," Pierce Burnette said. "It helps them to see where they are going, like a light in a path.”

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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