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In Fight Against Truancy, Mentors Work To Reconnect Students To School

(Photo by Lauren Gilger- KJZZ)
Carolyn Contreras.

It’s late afternoon on a Thursday at Fremont Jr. High School in Mesa, and Carolyn Contreras is making her last few calls of the day.

“As soon as I know they’re not in school, I text them, and ask why. He hasn’t responded. So now I’m going to call,” she said. “Especially with this being only the second week of school, if they’re already missing, I’m concerned.”

Contreras is a youth education mentor for the Maricopa County Education Service Agency and she spends a lot of her time tracking people down – and not getting very far.

“His voicemail hasn’t been set up yet,” she said as the message telling her that played on the other end of the line. Contreras said she often feels like she has to play detective in this position.

She’s one of six mentors who work with a large caseload of students across the county who have landed themselves in court for truancy or other issues. They work to help get them back in the classroom.

“Hey, you’re not at school, I’m going to call you. And guess what, if you don’t answer, I’m going to come by your house,” she said.

She’s part of a program that’s attempting to head off a much larger problem that starts with kids missing school, and turns into chronic truancy, a status offense in Maricopa County.

“Nationally, we have absenteeism [at] about 13 percent,” according to Maricopa County School Superintendent Don Covey. “In Maricopa County, it’s 16.”

Covey worked with the County Board of Supervisors to fund the program last year because there are more students missing more than 15 days of school a year here than most everywhere else.

“We have some traditional schools that have an absentee rate as much as 63 percent,” he said. Some alternative schools in the county have rates as high as 80 percent.

“Those are alarming statistics,” Covey said.

'Who cares if I’m at school? Who’s going to notice?'

Contreras spent the first eight years of her career as a teacher, but now, she said she’s able to dig deeper with students who might have slipped through the cracks before.

“I’m able to get to the root of the problem. Why aren’t they in school? What’s going on? Is it home? Is it school?” she said.

She works with students on problem-solving, organization and setting short-term, achievable goals. And she’s big on positive reinforcement.

“I had one student who was really struggling and we started making goals,” she said. “Every time he met a goal, I would bring him a piece of candy. And I know it sounds very little, but that piece of candy meant the world to him.”

She said she texts students at 6:30 in the morning to remind them to get up for orientation, tracks them down at home when they aren’t in school, and works with administrators on shaping their class schedules.

But, she finds, most of the time, these students stopped showing up for one, simple reason: “Who cares if I’m at school? Who’s going to notice?” Contreras said.

Cheryl Neuser, assistant principle at Fremont Jr. High, one of the schools where Contreras works, echoed that attitude. “A lot of it is, so what? What’s the difference? What do you care?” she said.

“When you look at kids who are failing classes, we then look at, how many absences have they had? There’s definitely a correlation,” according to Neuser.

She said that teachers at her school have anywhere from 120 to 180 students each. They can’t make sure every single student has caught up on every single assignment. And, the works adds up fast.

“Sometimes they have to hit the wall, where they’re in trouble, they’re failing all of their classes, things are a mess, and then they get it,” Neuser said. “Like, a light bulb goes on. You know, and I just think for some of them, it’s a matter of whether there’s one person they can talk to, one person they can turn to who is in their corner.”

And, for many of them, that person is a mentor, like Contreras.

Last year, she started working with one student who she says missed more classes than he made. She said, she met with him recently and went over his schedule for the new year with him.

He’s really into auto shop, according to Contreras.

“First hour, he had welding and he said, ‘It’s excellent. I love it,’” she said. And his last class of the day?


She asked him, “Do you understand what your counselors and administration did here?” She told him, they book-ended his day with classes he would love, so he would come to school – and stay.

“And he kind of looked at me, I’m like ‘Do you understand how much they care?’’ she said.

She said he had this look on his face like she had never seen. “He got it. And it clicked.”

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.