Omeron Kahn’s memory isn’t the best. He doesn’t remember how old he was or what grade he was in when he first met Boston Public Schools' reengagement officer Manny Allen.
But one detail is clear: “I remember he sat down with me and my mom with this chart, this chart on how much it costs to live in Boston.”
That chart was a “Lifetime Earnings List” for men 18-65 years old, based on education levels. High school dropouts earned considerably less over a lifetime, according to the sheet.
It was a message Kahn’s mother desperately wanted him to hear. Kahn had been skipping school pretty regularly by then.
“I was bullied a lot because I look different, and I was just a different kid,” he says.
Soon after, Kahn’s best friend was shot and killed over a bike. By high school, Kahn was significantly behind his peers. At 19 years old, he was only in ninth grade.
Kahn’s story is a familiar one for the Boston school district. For high school students, the road to dropping out most often begins with students getting disciplined or feeling disengaged. They start by skipping out on classes, then skip school altogether.
For younger students, experts say family factors like housing stability and culture play a big role in whether students attend school regularly. This past year, 28 percent of students K-12 were chronically absent from BPS. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year: 18 days or more.
And according to a WBUR analysis of data from the federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights, most of the chronically absent students live at or below the poverty line. Eight out of every 10 are black or Latino, and most are teenage boys.
The district is now taking a targeted approach to tackling the problem.
“We have to be intentional on the front end, because trying to backload 28 percent is not going to be an effective strategy,” says Colin Rose, assistant superintendent for the BPS Office of Opportunity Achievement Gaps.
Last winter BPS joined the federal “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which provides mentorship and intervention support for black male students of color. Rose says during a three-month period last spring, both Jeremiah E. Burke High School and The English High School saw a 5 percent reduction in the number of absences.
This coming school year, Rose says, several schools will be implementing a curriculum specifically for black males at risk, providing additional support. But even with all of this work, Rose says there is still more to do.
“Our students with special needs are disciplined almost twice the rate of the average BPS student across our racial categories,” says Rose. “One major push we’re making is exploring, as a district, our bias, looking at issues around implicit bias, internalized racism and white privilege. People come in with a certain frame, a cultural frame, into the work and have certain expectations for behaviors.”
There is also a correlation between absenteeism and poverty — and the unstable housing situations that poverty often creates. Allen, the reengagement officer, says chronically absent students are more likely to be transient.
“A lot of our students come from impoverished backgrounds, and poverty has its own lessons to teach,” says Allen.
“In other places, if you’re not going to school or you’re not working, you can kind of tell that your movements are not consistent with success, or they’re not norm,” he adds. “The difference for urban youth is that there are a lot more examples to support you not moving forward.”
Allen himself did move forward — but two decades ago, as the oldest of seven children raised by a single mother, he dropped out of high school. So he can connect with kids like Kahn.
Now, Allen is working with Kahn to get him back into the Boston Adult Technical Academy, a school for older students who want to get a high school diploma.
“It would make me so happy, because I really am focused and determined to turn my life around, and just be a student again,” says Kahn.
Allen says when students are struggling, he strives to show them something they will always remember, like the income sheet for high school dropouts, or a promise.
“I always say 16 to 21 is a tricky time — students think they know everything," Allen says. "But I always tell them: They can come back; they can always come back. And we honor that.”
WBUR's Catherine Kulke contributed to this report.
This segment aired on August 10, 2016.