It's a simple question, yet it's one Tricia Keith finds herself dealing with every day as a part of her job.
Why are kids missing school? She often hears a variety of answers, borne of complicated circumstances, which means she has many strategies for finding solutions.
Keith, the truant officer and homeless coordinator for the Vermilion County Regional Office of Education, works with school officials to get kids in school. They provide city bus passes for kids in Danville, in case they miss the school bus and don't have another way to get there.
Keith also stops by homes to talk to parents. If the answer to her question about an absence is, "I didn't have any clean clothes," she'll take home laundry and do it herself, and she said others have done so, too.
If "I overslept" is an answer, she'll buy the student an alarm clock. She's taken kids to get their required school physicals and often finds students are thrilled to be back at school.
She encounters all kinds of obstacles families face in getting their kids to school, like when a parent is having health problems and an older sibling has to stay home to take care of a younger sibling.
"Our kids are facing more issues than you could ever imagine," Keith said. "And the things they are having to overcome, ... we are trying to support them the best we can so they can go on to be successful. Every day, I am surprised at the new challenges our kids are facing, and a number of them are still trying to do the right thing."
Nationally, 7 million kindergartners through high school seniors miss 18 days or more of school each year, according to an August report from the Get Schooled Foundation.
And those chronic truants are more apt to give up on their education.
"Students who miss more than 10 days of school are more than 20 percent less likely to graduate from high school than their peers, and those same students have a 25 percent lower likelihood of ever enrolling in any type of college," according to the Get Schooled report.
Truancy is defined by Illinois as when a student misses all or part of the school day without a valid cause. Valid causes include illness, religious holiday, a death in the student's immediate family, a family emergency and others as defined by the school board. Also, a valid cause can be "other circumstances which cause reasonable concern to the parent for the safety or health of the student."
During the 2010-11 school year, more than 43 percent of Champaign's students were considered truant — absent without a valid reason — at least once, as well as 43 percent of Urbana's students and more than 61 percent of Danville's students.
The state now defines students who miss at least nine days of school (5 percent of the school year) as chronically truant. Before last school year, that was at least 18 days, or 10 percent of the school year.
During the 2010-11 school year, 1.73 percent of Champaign students were chronically truant, as were 1.86 percent of Urbana students and 5.8 percent of Danville students.
"Unfortunately for some students, that can happen in the first month of school," said Keith, of the Vermilion County Regional Office of Education.
Once a student is defined as a chronic truant, the regional office can work with several other entities, including the county's state's attorney, to compel him or her to attend.
"Court is the very last resort," Keith said. "We don't really want to do that, but we have."
Truancy numbers in area school districts have fluctuated during the last few years, going up in Danville, staying about the same in Urbana and going down in Champaign.
But regardless of whether truancy is up or down, school officials say they work hard to make sure students get to class.
Joe Wiemelt, interim principal at Urbana High School, said the main concern about truancy is what students miss when they're absent.
"It's very easy to fall behind," he said, especially at the high school level, because students miss eight individual class periods.
While students can make up homework assignments, they're still missing activities and discussions happening at school every day.
"A whole lot of what goes on in a classroom is not something you can make up," said David Adcock, director of Urbana Adult Education.
Assistant Principal Travis Courson, who oversees attendance at UHS, said that many times, truancy stems from kids finding positive reinforcement outside school instead of inside.
"Let's try to find the positive reinforcement inside the building," Courson said, about one strategy to keep kids coming to school.
Wiemelt said part of that strategy is to have different staff members check in with students during the day in order to create a support network for them.
"We want to make them feel welcome here," Wiemelt said.
This year, Urbana has fewer resources in fighting truancy.
The district this year lost a grant that had for the last 30 years paid for truancy outreach workers, said Adcock, of Urbana Adult Education, which administered the grant.
The grant, called the Truants' Alternative and Optional Education Program, provided about $188,000 from the state last year to pay for outreach workers at every school, as well as part of the salaries of several employees at Urbana Adult Education.
Urbana reapplied for the grant every three years, Adcock said, including last year. The state had less money to distribute to school districts for the grant, and Adcock said he believes Urbana lost it because of the district's timing for reapplication.
The state chose to distribute grant money to school districts in the second and third years of the grant, and didn't have much money left over.
The schools' truancy outreach workers were often parents' first point of contact in the schools, Adcock said. They also documented what the school district was doing to try to get kids to school, as required by the state, as well as kept records on the regional office's and state's attorney's involvement.
Now, other people at the school have to maintain those records.
The Champaign school district has and currently receives that grant, and it's helped reduce truancy numbers, said Orlando Thomas, the school district's director of pupil services.
Using grant money, Champaign hired five truant intervention student advocates, who work with specific schools and chronic truants.
They, too, make home visits and set up individual plans for students who have trouble making it to school for various reasons.
"We just pull out ... all of the stops and tap into every resource that we possibly can" when it comes to making sure kids get to school, Thomas said.
If it comes to court action, the advocates even show up there, Thomas said.
"We have seen just a huge turnaround, having those pieces in place," he said.
But the battle against truancy extends beyond school officials.
Other relationships are important too, like those with mentors who come into the schools to work with kids. Students don't skip class on days their mentors are coming, Wiemelt said.
Getting kids involved in extracurriculars also helps, because they have to be present to participate, Wiemelt said.
"The ones who miss school are the ones who aren't involved," Wiemelt said.
Courson said students who skip school aren't necessarily getting into trouble. Many are just hanging out with their friends.
Social activity is "huge for high school students," Courson said, and some might not get that social stimulation at school, where there are 4-minute passing periods.
Authors of the Get Schooled report interviewed more than 500 eighth-graders through seniors from around the country who skip school. They found 65 percent do so to "hang out with friends" and 36 percent, to sleep.
The report also found that 83 percent of interviewed students said they'd attend more if they could see clear connections between the classes they take and the jobs they want.
Nick Elder, the system director of Education for Employment System 330, which works with local schools and Parkland College on career and technical education, has read the report and said he especially agrees with that statistic.
He believes an increase in career and technical education (also known as vocational education) could help engage students in school, and therefore encourage better attendance.
"For me, it seems kind of simple, because the research keeps telling us that a majority of kids keep dropping out of school because they're not interested and there's no connection to their future."
He believes the hands-on approach to career and technical education gets kids working with their hands during class, whether that's building a shed, running a sewing machine or using a computer. Such classes also teach students skills they can use as adults, for their future careers.
"I've just always thought ... the more we offer them, the more excited they're going to be about school and the motivation they have to stay in school," Elder said.
- Champaign decreased 24.4 percent between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years, from 5,065 individual students truant (57.28 percent of the total student body) to 3,827 students (43.03 percent). Also, in the 2010-11 school year, 154 students were labeled chronic truants, a 64.92 percent decrease when compared with the 439 students who were chronic truants in the 2008-09 school year.
- Danville increased 36.4 percent, from 2,784 individual students truant in 2008-09 (43.38 percent) to 3,796 students in 2010-11 (61.24 percent). In the 2008-09 school year, 167 students were chronic truants; in 2010-11, 360 students were, a 115.57 percent increase.
- Urbana increased 1.17 percent, from 1,627 individual students truant in 2008-09 (43.36 percent) to 1,646 students in 2010-11 (43.63 percent). That year, 70 students were chronic truants, an increase of 22.81 percent when compared with the 57 chronic truancies in 2008-09.
A student is considered truant whenever absent all or part of a school day without a valid reason. To meet the state definition of chronic truancy prior to the 2011-12 school year, a student would have to miss 18 school days or more in a year. The new standard is more stringent, with nine days or more of missed school equaling chronic truancy.
Sources: Illinois State Board of Education; enrollment data from the Illinois Interactive Report Card