It perhaps was an unlikely place for Boston’s new superintendent to be just one day before the start of the school year: knocking on the door of a student’s home inside a dark cinder block hallway in a Mission Hill public housing complex.
But Brenda Cassellius was there Wednesday morning to deliver a message about good attendance to the high school student, who was chronically absent last year. As it turned out, he wasn’t home, but his two pregnant sisters were. Cassellius, brimming with enthusiasm, offered some encouraging words, sharing her own experience as a single mother in college.
“It’s hard work, but it will be worth it for you and your baby,” she promised, sporting first-day-of-school sneakers and a T-shirt that read “I’m In: Attend Today Achieve Tomorrow.”
Cassellius, as she prepares for her first opening day leading Boston’s schools, has made improving student attendance one of her top priorities. Across Boston, one out of five students in kindergarten through grade eight have been chronically absent from school in recent years, while more than a third of high school students have been persistently missing classes, according to state data.
It is one of the most stubborn problems facing Boston Public Schools officials, as chronic absenteeism rates have remained largely stagnant despite years of efforts to reduce them.
Meanwhile, the state has increased pressure on Boston and other districts to boost attendance, adding chronic absenteeism last year as another measure of school quality. Boston, like many districts statewide, missed all of its targets for improved attendance last year. Under state rules, students are considered chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more of a school year.
Hedy Chang, executive director for Attendance Works, a national advocacy organization that has been raising public attention about chronic absenteeism, said Cassellius’ door-knocking could have an impact on reducing chronic absenteeism.
“When she as superintendent goes out to students at their homes, she is saying, ‘I believe in you and we are a place that has faith in you,’ ” she said.
Tackling chronic absenteeism, Chang said, requires an all-hands-on-deck mentality because attendance data need to be scrutinized daily — identifying not only which students are routinely missing classes but also the reasons why and the strategies to entice them back to school.
Students miss school for a wide variety of reasons, such as being homeless, chronically ill, involved with the court system, or experiencing trauma from home or neighborhood violence. Sometimes such students are bored with school, working jobs to help their parents with finances, raising their own families, or just goofing around.
The plethora of obstacles means schools must pursue a multipronged strategy to keep students in school, such as setting students up with mentors or counselors, making classroom instruction more engaging, or finding housing for couch-surfing students.
Many times school employees and volunteers will track students down at home to simply let them know they care.
Cassellius’ visits were part of a larger canvassing effort that involved 45 school department employees and volunteers from nonprofit organizations, who knocked on about 200 doors. They gathered in the lobby of school department headquarters in Dudley Square, where they received training on what to say during the home visits and a rallying call from the superintendent.
“This is an important way for us to have a personal touch with kids and say we want you back,” Cassellius said.
At the core of the messaging, Cassellius later added in an interview, was providing students with both hope and inspiration about their futures.
Cassellius’ outreach took her through the upper parts of Roxbury, from areas like Fort Hill that are going through gentrification to a public housing development in the shadows of the Wentworth Institute of Technology and Northeastern University.
She worked from a list of 20 students, as one of her high school superintendents, Tommy Welch, drove her around. At one point, they parked their car and walked through a neighborhood as the addresses of the students became increasingly close to one another.
It was a time-consuming task that occasionally yielded disappointment. She learned at two addresses that the students no longer lived there. At those homes where students were living, none were at home when Cassellius arrived.
But Cassellius still managed to make connections.
“It’s not about the count,” she said. “It’s about the impact.”
At the public housing development where the two pregnant sisters lived, Cassellius hoped her personal story would inspire them to finish their educations. One sister was in college; the other high school. Their father spoke only Spanish, and Welch, who is fluent in the language, provided translation.
Upstairs at another residence, Cassellius and Welch connected with a family where Spanish was also the spoken language. Welch learned the student they were hoping to find had enrolled in a private online high school.
“I have to learn Spanish,” Cassellius later said, adding that she is working on acquiring the language during her spare time at home, which is just two blocks from school department headquarters.
In other parts of Roxbury, Cassellius shared information about various high schools and alternative programs at a group home for youth where one of the chronically absent students lived. She came across another pregnant sister of a chronically absent student in an apartment building just beyond Eliot Square.
And at one home where a student no longer lived, Cassellius found a new family had moved in and a young girl would be starting second grade Thursday.
“I’m so excited to have you in school tomorrow,” Cassellius said, as the mother held the screen door partially open. “Maybe I can hand you your diploma in 10 years.”
Lindsa McIntyre, a high school superintendent for Boston who led the Jeremiah Burke High School until this summer, said addressing chronic absenteeism requires constant attention. As part of the Burke’s successful effort to shed its “underperforming” designation a few years ago — the only Massachusetts high school to do so — the school focused intently on reducing chronic absenteeism.
But the problem never truly goes away because every school year welcomes a new group of students with their own unique circumstances, she said.
“It’s difficult to address in the sense there are no quick fixes or one-size-fits-all strategies,” she said.
While Cassellius struck out finding chronically absent students at home, other canvassers had better luck.
Tonkennya Starling was feeding her 3-year-old toddler a mid-morning breakfast when the canvassers unexpectedly swung by, looking for her older son, Takhi, 17, who missed more than 80 days last year at English High School. He was still sleeping, and she wrestled him out of bed.
“I just love the fact they didn’t give up on him,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “I want to see him walk across the stage and graduate.”
Takhi said he was unfazed by the visit from Elia Bruggeman, a high school superintendent; Sandra Lopez Burke, the executive director of City Year Boston; and Neil Sullivan, executive director for the Boston Private Industry Council. He said he stopped going to school because he got bored with it. He said he planned to make the effort this year, and that the canvassers had now given him even more motivation.
“It made me feel good that people want to see me succeed,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “It makes it hard to bail on myself.”