Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

These Teens Were missing Too Much School. Here's What It Took to Get Them Back

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

 (Michelle Perez for NPR)

Sophomore Neomi sits quietly in an office at her high school in a Colorado mountain town west of Denver. It’s a cold December morning and she’s wearing gold and black Nikes and a gray hoodie, pulled up.

She’s surrounded by school staff and her mom.

“I just wanna be really clear about the intention of this meeting. It’s not to make you feel bad,” says Dave, a school administrator.

“What’s going on?” he asks Neomi. “Why aren’t we coming to school? Because you were coming to school quite a bit, and then all of a sudden…”

As Neomi listens, tears roll down her cheeks.


“Do you not feel safe? Are you stressed?” Dave asks softly.

Finally, in a quiet voice, the teen says, “I don’t have friends. I don’t have any people.”

Neomi has been chronically absent, which means, at the time of this meeting, she had already missed 10% or more of the school year. The teen is part of an alarming trend among the country’s K-12 students.

Chronic absenteeism skyrocketed nationwide during the pandemic. In the 2022-23 academic year, 26% of U.S. students were chronically absent, according to research from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Before the pandemic, only 15% of students were regularly missing school.

In some places, like Colorado and Oregon, the rates of chronic absenteeism are even higher.

Research has shown there’s a link between irregular attendance and not graduating – and attendance can be a better predictor of a student’s drop-out risk than test scores.

“The flip side of it [is] kids with high attendance are much more likely to stay on track and graduate with their peers,” says Johann Liljengren, director of dropout prevention for the Colorado Department of Education.

Going beyond academics to help solve absenteeism

Getting chronically absent students back to class is a priority for schools. It requires support from families and teachers, as well as difficult, personal conversations – like the kind Dave and Neomi are having in Colorado.

NPR is only using the teen’s middle name so this conversation about her attendance doesn’t hurt future job or academic prospects. To further protect her identity, we aren’t naming her school or her mom, and we’re only using the administrator’s first name.

Neomi and her family came to Colorado from El Salvador. At the December meeting, a school staffer interprets for Neomi’s mom, who has been listening quietly.

When Dave points out that the teen hasn’t been in school much since Thanksgiving, Neomi’s mom speaks up to explain what her daughter has been going through.

“She doesn’t want to come here because she was dating this kid and they broke up,” she says through the interpreter. “Everybody is bullying or laughing or talking: ‘Well, after being the perfect couple, look at you.’ ”

Neomi’s mom tried to get help for her daughter.

“I was trying to find resources to try to find a therapist,” she says through the interpreter.

Dave tells her he can help with that. He knows, through student interviews, that health, including mental health, was among the top reasons around half of all students in this rural district were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year.

Other reasons include family responsibilities, transportation issues and jobs.

“So everything from working at, you know, Walmart to helping parents with their cleaning businesses,” Dave explains. “They’re working till really late at night. And then, you know, getting up in the morning is tough.”

For Neomi, the hardest part of coming to school is running into students in the hallways and at lunchtime. With this key information, staffers get to work on some solutions that could help bring the teenager back.

They offer to give her a pass to leave class early so she can avoid the students who have been teasing her.

Dave suggests finding a classroom where she can eat lunch, and school staff offer to stay in touch over a messaging app.

They try to get Neomi to stay for the rest of the school day, but she says she isn’t ready. Though she promises to come back on Monday, after the weekend.

What it looks like to come back from absenteeism

Anais and her mom agree Anais’ sophomore year was a low point in her high school career: She missed more than a month of classes, which set her back academically and put her at risk of not graduating on time, a common consequence of chronic absenteeism in Oregon.

Anais is currently a junior at David Douglas High School in southeast Portland, Ore. On a Friday after school back in February, the bubbly 17-year-old and her mom, Josette, are outside, in front of their apartment complex, joking around.

She and her mom go back and forth on how they’d grade Anais’ attendance last year.

Josette gives her daughter a D.

“From January to June, you were not there a lot,” she says.

Anais is harder on herself: “I would say a D-minus.”

Last school year, Anais was sick a lot, but, like Neomi, she was also going through a breakup. Both kept her from school for days at a time.

NPR is not using Anais’ full name so she can talk openly about her attendance without hurting future academic or job prospects. To further protect her identity, we also aren’t fully naming her mom, Josette.

Chronic absenteeism at Anais’ high school was at 44% in 2023, well above AEI’s national average.

For Anais, missing so much school hurt her grades and changed her friendships. She says her teachers tried to help – “The teachers really did try their best with me with not showing up” — but there wasn’t much they could do.

But this year has been different. Her attendance is back up, and Anais has been working on her grades.

What changed? She hasn’t been sick as much this year – and she also got back together with her boyfriend.

Josette doesn’t love that the boyfriend continues to play a role in her daughter’s attendance. She’s quick to remind Anais that school is a priority.

“I do talk to her about not letting things get in the way of her education,” Josette says.

After so many absences, getting back on track to graduate goes beyond just showing up. Anais has been taking a credit recovery class after school to make up for what she missed during her sophomore year. She plans to attend summer school too, if that’s what it takes to finish on time.

Josette has faith her daughter will pull it off. If she does, Anais would be the first of her five siblings to graduate from a traditional high school.

At that point, Anais jokes, “You’re pretty much a grown adult.”

Back on track

One thing both Anais and her mom can agree on is how they’d grade Anais’ attendance this school year: Both give it an A.

As the school year winds down in Colorado, Neomi’s attendance has also turned around. Dave says she missed school the Monday after the meeting, but she did make it on Tuesday. Since then, she’s been coming to school a lot more. Recently the teenager had a two-week stretch of perfect attendance. Dave says school staff did a celebration dance in the hallway.

Leigh Paterson covers youth mental health for KUNC in Northern Colorado, and Elizabeth Miller covers education for OPB in Portland, Ore.


Digital and audio stories edited by: Nicole Cohen
Audio stories produced by: Lauren Migaki
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson



Since the pandemic, an alarming number of K-12 students haven’t been going to school. Getting them back in the classroom takes support from both school and faculty. And for many teenagers, it also takes a real desire to go back. OPB’s Elizabeth Miller spoke to one teen in Portland, Ore., about her journey to better attendance.


ANAIS: And I go to David Douglas High School, and I’m a 11th grader, so I’m a junior. (Laughter) I had to process that.

MILLER: Last year, Anais really struggled to make it to school. We aren’t using Anais’ full name, so she can talk openly about her attendance without hurting future academic or job prospects. To further protect her identity, we also aren’t fully naming her mom, Josette.

JOSETTE: Your attendance last year was not all that.

MILLER: At home, Anais and Josette go back and forth on how they’d grade Anais’ attendance back then. Josette said she’d give her daughter a D. Anais is less generous.

ANAIS: I’d say a D-minus.

JOSETTE: OK. January to June…

ANAIS: I’d say a D-minus.

JOSETTE: …You were not there a lot.

ANAIS: That’s what I’m saying.

MILLER: Like countless teenage daughters and mothers before them, neither will budge.

ANAIS: That’s why I’m saying a D-minus…

JOSETTE: OK, a D-minus.

ANAIS: …Not a D-plus.

MILLER: Chronic absenteeism exploded during the pandemic. And the numbers are still pretty bad. In 2023, about 1 in 4 U.S. students was chronically absent, according to research from the American Enterprise Institute. That means they’ve missed 10% or more of the school year. In Oregon, the numbers are even worse. About 200,000 Oregon students were chronically absent last school year. Anais was one of them. She says she was sick a lot.

ANAIS: Last year, it was more of being around – like, a lot of sick people don’t give it up (laughter).

MILLER: Judging from her mom’s reaction, that wasn’t the whole story.

ANAIS: What’s that look for? Bro, you just looked like you ate a lemon, and you were like, ugh (laughter).

JOSETTE: She was sick a lot of the times, and I think a lot of it was there’s other issues behind that, her not going.

MILLER: Anais and her boyfriend broke up in her sophomore year, and that kept Anais from wanting to go to school, so she didn’t. She missed over a month of classes.

ANAIS: The teachers really did try their best with me with not showing up.

MILLER: But she still fell behind and fell out of touch with friends.

ANAIS: That definitely impact my grades and, like, me just being in class, my relationship with some of my friends.

MILLER: This year has been different. Anais’ attendance has been much better, and she’s spent the past several months working on her grades.

ANAIS: I’m doing – I wouldn’t say a whole lot better, but, like, better because during finals, I really thought I was going to fail, and apparently I did really good.

MILLER: She says there are a few main reasons she goes to school now. At David Douglas, if a student is on track to graduate, they can leave school early or arrive late. Anais is working towards that for her senior year. Also, she got back together with her boyfriend.

ANAIS: Three reasons – boyfriend, early release and late arrival.


MILLER: Josette is clearly concerned that the boyfriend still plays such a big role in her daughter’s attendance.

JOSETTE: I do talk to her about not letting things get in the way of her education. Her education is more important, and, I mean, she’s a teenager.

MILLER: In Anais’ family, there’s a lot riding on her graduation. She’d be the first of her five siblings to graduate from a traditional high school, something that’s important to her mom. Even as Anais cracks jokes in the background, Josette is convinced her daughter will get there.

JOSETTE: I have faith in her that she will graduate on time.

MILLER: And if Anais does graduate on time, there’s a reward waiting for both her and her younger brother at the end, a trip out of the country, courtesy of Josette’s nephew and his girlfriend.

JOSETTE: They might have to pitch in and help pay for the trip, but they have to finish on time.

MILLER: And making it to graduation starts with making it to school and taking credit recovery after school to catch back up. It also means working on her grades, which haven’t always been great. But Anais says there is one area where her grade has improved – attendance. Last year, she gave herself a D-minus.

ANAIS: This year, I give it at least an A. I don’t know about a A-plus, though.

JOSETTE: I’d give it an A.

MILLER: For once, both mother and daughter agree.

For NPR News, I’m Elizabeth Miller in Portland.

lower waypoint
next waypoint