IPS seeks "missing" students

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Indianapolis Public Schools are asking "where are the students?"

It's two weeks into the school year and too many teachers are teaching to too many empty desks. The push is on to increase attendance and get parents to get their children in school.

Overall IPS attendance is better than this time last year. But it's not good enough. We found educators racing to find children before they fall too far behind.

At John Marshall Community High School, an algebra teacher shouted to the class, "Are you ready?"

"Yes!" students shouted back.

In reality, the answer is no, not everyone.

More than two weeks into the school year, hundreds of IPS students have yet to show up for class. Teachers are charging ahead, social workers are making phone calls and banging on doors looking for missing kids.

John Marshall Principal Charles Gray explained, "Every day they are not here is a day they are not learning."

The far east side high school started the year without 20 percent of its students. When they show up, teachers will have to catch them up without slowing down everyone else.

"You are playing catch-up not in one period but in eight periods and every student feels it," said English teacher Allison Coffman. "Everyone feels it."

Far from the classrooms, in small offices, John Marshall has had as many as eight people working full time to find the schools missing students. They've made hundreds of calls and dozens of surprise visits.

We followed the school social worker and parent liaison into some neighborhoods. First stop, an apartment. No one home. They left a calling card on the door knob.

At the second stop, a woman met them outside explaining the absent teenagers are switching to a charter school, but haven't actually enrolled yet.

Stop three yielded no answer at the door, so another message was left. Despite the letdowns, Ronda Young says she's hopeful.

The reasons parents give the social worker for keeping children home range from not having the proper uniform to the heart-wrenching.

"Some of the children are pregnant and they didn't know they can attend school. They can attend school," the social worker explained. "Some children have moved." And some are homeless.

Their work is paying off. In one week, John Marshall put 100 more children back in school, filling empty desks, and more importantly the minds than occupy them.

Remarkably, IPS is fighting parents who believe summer isn't over until September. Administrators expect what they call the typical Labor Day "bump" in attendance.

A school district struggling to improve will struggle with students who by then will have missed about a month of classes.