Milwaukee Parents, School Officials Work Together To Get Kids To Class

May 13, 2016

This week, WUWM’s “Getting There” series is looking at the issue of truancy in Milwaukee’s public schools. Today, we look to the end of the school year with parents and school leaders.

We’ve learned a few of the complicated reasons students don’t come to school. And we’ve heard how MPS is working with community partners to bump its attendance up from 89 percent to this year’s goal of 95 percent.

Some of the toughest work getting kids to class falls to the adults in their lives – especially parents and school advisors.

As the school year comes to an end, those folks are still coordinating efforts.

READ: What are other cities trying to curb truancy?

Kids dash through the front doors, trying to beat the bell at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, a public charter school on the city’s northwest side. School officials scurry students in to their lockers.

But one student seems to be missing…again. She’s a ninth grader named N’nagbe.

Attendance rates are prominently displayed on a whiteboard at the front of the Milwaukee Collegiate Academy building.
Credit Rachel Morello

School counselor Samantha Mewes tries calling N’nagbe’s mom a few times. No answer.

This scenario is all too familiar to Mewes. She’s been working to get N’nagbe to school since her mom referred her to school officials for truancy. At one point, Mewes even arranged to drive N’nagbe to school every day.

“We had a meeting spot, so mom would bring her to the meeting spot,” Mewes explains. “We got her back into the swing of things. That lasted probably for a while.”

After a few minutes, Mewes get a text from N’nagbe’s mom. They just got to school. N’nagbe was absent yesterday, too, so she has to head straight to class.

"We do care about our education, but we don't want to put ourselves in danger."

Mom, Hawa Maraga, tells me her daughter isn’t comfortable at school. The family moved to Milwaukee from Madison. N’nagbe is worried about the environment around her new city and school building.

“This past month, she’s been telling me, ‘Mom, there’s too much shooting around the school. I never seen that in my life. And it makes me scared!’” Maraga says. “We’ve never been [in] this kind of place.”

Fanta Conde is N’nagbe’s older sister, a high school junior. She attended a few schools in Milwaukee before deciding online school was a better option for her. Like her sister, Conde says she does not like the distractions she sees in class.

“It’s bad,” Conde says, recounting an instance in one of her former schools when a classmate brought drugs to class. “It’s not about us being bad kids, it’s about us trying to go somewhere where we know we can learn, and there’s not going to be drama.”

“We do care about our education, but we don’t want to put ourselves in danger,” Conde says.

“I tell N’gabe, don’t mind the kids, don’t mind the students. Mind the teachers, focus,” Maraga adds.

READ: Why do Milwaukee students miss school?

Maraga’s daughter may be at a public charter school, but her situation typifies what many parents experience across school sectors.

Maraga works to support her three kids. She wants what’s best for them. But sometimes, she acknowledges, she needs help to get them what they need.

This year, MPS added 30 new positions to do just that: devote their time to working with families on getting their kids to school. They’re called “regional attendance liaisons.”

Bud Strehlow is one of them.

"Coming to school on time and coming to school regularly is not a school skill, it's a life skill."

“Our job is to see them through the year to be as successful as they can, not only in school but at home,” Strehlow says. “Being a liaison between the teachers, administrators and families, and just trying to put it together for them.”

Strehlow and his colleagues work across 55 district schools. They focus on kids who average 60 to 70 percent attendance. Liaisons work closely with MPS social workers on attendance-related tasks: building trust with families, finding out what stands in the way of getting to school, and connecting them to helpful resources.

READ: MPS partners with local organizations to track down truant students

On the surface, the goal is to get MPS to its 95 percent attendance rate. But liaison coordinator Anita Sparks says there’s more to the job than just raising numbers.

“Coming to school on time and coming to school regularly is not a school skill, it’s a life skill,” Sparks says. “We’re preparing our kids to be successful in life. We don’t want them to go through life just being the B student, when they could be the A student.”

“We want our students to reach this 95 percent goal, 89 percent is not good enough,” Sparks adds. “We want our kids to be at school 100 percent of the time.”

READ: Young adults contribute to MPS attendance efforts

Fourteen-year-old N’nagbe has made strides in her attendance this year. She’s showing up more regularly, and her mom says she feels a bit more comfortable.

Hawa Maraga credits her daughter’s counselor and teachers for the help they’ve given her. Maraga advises all parents to reach out when they need support.

“Most kids, they won’t listen to their own parents. But at least they will listen to somebody outside of the house, especially at school,” Maraga says. “Everybody at school here, they support me.”

With only a few weeks left in the school year, MPS still has time to reach its attendance goal. Then, they start over again next year, with a new group of kids and parents.