Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was driving through the city early one Sunday morning when the sight of church vans picking up members to take them to services gave him an idea for combating absenteeism in the district.

The vans, he realized, were a way for church leaders to overcome barriers that prevent members from attending services.

“I thought we needed to do the same thing as a district,” Vitti said last week.

The district now plans to purchase six 10-passenger vans that will serve dual purposes: In addition to providing transportation for special education students who require door-to-door service, the vans will also be used — likely by attendance agents — to pick up chronically absent students and take them to school. The vans would be assigned to schools with particularly high rates of chronic absenteeism.

It’s an unusual tactic that could help the district address a staggering problem: Seventy percent of district students were labeled chronically absent during the last school year, meaning they missed 18 or more days of school. Improving attendance is key to turnaround efforts in the district.

“I’ve never heard of another district that’s tried this,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that helps schools improve attendance.

She cited some research released in 2017 that looked at whether the ways students get to school influenced whether they attend. The findings: Children who took the school bus had fewer absent days and were less likely to be chronically absent.

“This is why I think it could be helpful,” she said of the vans.

But Chang noted that it’s important to use the vans as part of a “larger, comprehensive approach” that includes a lot of outreach and the work of attendance teams who address absenteeism issues and pore over data.

The vans will be part of a pilot and will add to efforts already underway to address absenteeism. This year, the district made a significant investment in combating chronic absenteeism, spending $9 million to put an attendance agent in nearly every school. The district has also tried to address issues that might impact attendance — such as improving school culture, improving customer service, and ensuring every school has art or music classes.

Meanwhile, community groups such as United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Skillman Foundation (which is a Chalkbeat funder) have brought resources to the district through an Every School Day Counts initiative. As part of that effort, staff at 27 of the district’s most struggling schools meet regularly to share ideas and best practices for combating chronic absenteeism. 

It’s not the first time vans have been used in Detroit to address chronic absence. Chang cited an experiment launched by some church leaders that lasted for a little more than a semester back in 2012. One of those leaders, the Rev. Larry Simmons, who now heads up the Brightmoor Alliance, said that after that short experiment, the group decided the problem was larger and more complex than anyone realized and it needed a more systemic approach than their small effort could address. He said that systemic approach is now happening through the Every School Day Counts initiative.

There are signs the current work is having an impact. Vitti has cited lower chronic absenteeism rates across the district as well as improved daily attendance rates.

Vitti raised the idea of using the vans to address chronic absenteeism during school board committee meetings last month. His original plan had been to purchase nearly a dozen of the vans, but board members who heard the plan suggested starting smaller and expanding if it’s successful. The pilot will cost about $200,000.

The district will work with attendance agents so they can get a chauffeur’s license, which Vitti said is required to use the vans to transport students. In cases where the agent doesn’t receive a license, the district would hire someone specifically to drive the vans.

“This recommendation is related to our strategy to try to go deeper into the neighborhoods to try to reach out to parents,” Vitti said.

Board member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry asked during the April 29 meeting whether transportation is the reason students aren’t coming to school.

Vitti replied that attendance agents already are using their own cars to visit the homes of students who are chronically absent, and often bringing students to school.

“Sometimes parents are just overwhelmed and not sending their children to school,” Vitti said. “So, when the attendance agent visits the home and talks about attending school, often they’re taking that child to school in their own car.”

“We know that in Detroit, transportation is huge,” Chang said. It’s huge, she said, because students often have to deal with unsafe routes to school. She noted that one California school district found that the students with the most chronic absence were those who lived closest to the high school who were afraid to walk to school.

In Detroit, the district already provides school bus transportation to K-8 general education students who live more than three-quarters of a mile away from their neighborhood school, and for high school students who live more than a mile and a half from their neighborhood school. Transportation for students with special education needs is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, said transportation is also a problem for a particularly vulnerable group of students.

“Transportation is a huge issue for many families in Detroit, but particularly for families experiencing housing instability,” said Erb-Downward, who has done research on chronic absenteeism in Michigan. “That’s because they’re moving from place to place.”

She said her gut reaction is that the vans could benefit students struggling to get to school.

“You need a transportation system that’s flexible in some way,” she said.