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White House selects Boston for mentoring program to reduce student absenteeism

The White House has selected Boston to be one of 10 urban school districts nationwide to take part in a new mentoring program to reduce the number of students who are chronically absent from school, education officials announced Friday.

The program will start with four Boston schools: English High in Jamaica Plain, Burke High in Dorchester, Higginson-Lewis in Roxbury, and Perkins Elementary in South Boston. It builds upon a previously announced effort by Mayor Martin J. Walsh to bring in 1,000 mentors to schools citywide.

Other districts taking part are Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Columbus, Denver, San Antonio, Austin, and Seattle.

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Boston has been struggling for years with chronic absenteeism, a national epidemic that can cause students to fall behind in class and eventually quit school. Students are considered to be chronically absent if they miss more than 18 days in a year, regardless if they are sick or truant. Frequent illness can be a sign that students lack adequate access to health care -- a barrier schools could help families overcome if they are on the lookout for it.

As of last month, 26.6 percent of Boston ninth-graders have missed enough days this school year to be deemed chronically absent, while 13.3 percent of sixth-graders and 14.7 percent of kindergarten students have received that designation, according to the Boston School Department. The mentoring program will be targeting students in those grades, which are typically the first year students attend a particular school.

“We need to make sure we put young people on a path to success,” Walsh said during a White House press call Friday.

The mentoring program stems from President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which aims to bolster the achievement of male students of color. But federal education officials said the mentoring program will extend to all students who need it.

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Up to five students will be assigned to each mentor and they will meet with their mentor three times a week in school. The mentors will aim to keep the students on track, celebrate their strengths, and connect them with the necessary supports for success, federal education officials said.

In Boston, the program will start small with 10 kindergarten students at the Perkins, 12 sixth-graders at the Higginson-Lewis, 30 ninth-graders at English, and another 30 at the Burke. More students and other schools will join the program as more mentors are recruited.

Mentors have proven to be powerful allies in getting students to come to school. Several Boston schools in recent years have partnered with City Year, whose corps members zero in on frequently absent students with much success.


James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.