The teen at first said he had missed a lot of school because he just didn't feel like it and was hanging out with friends.
But a youth development worker who developed a relationship probed further.
The teen said the year before he was living with his grandmother and she had a lot of illnesses. Then it turned out he was living with his grandmother because his brother had been shot and killed.
Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national organization that encourages school attendance, gave that as an example of the importance of understanding why students are missing school.
"Then you can figure out how to help the kids," she said.
Ms. Chang was the keynote speaker at "School Attendance Matters Conference," hosted by the United Way of Allegheny County in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.
The conference at Pitt is part of the "Be There" campaign that the United Way and partner groups -- including Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit -- are trying to boost school attendance through both school and community efforts.
The more than 230 attendees came from 15 school districts and three charter schools as after-school programs, human service agencies, government and legal entities, foundation leadership, early childhood programs and community and parent volunteers.
Ms. Chang focuses on chronic absenteeism, which is missing 10 percent or more school days -- that's 18 days in a 180-day year -- for any reason, legitimate or not. She said schools now have data systems sophisticated enough to do the analysis to pinpoint this problem.
She said that even schools with high average daily attendance can have problems with students who are chronically absent -- some missing a day here or there -- with an estimate of as many as 7.5 million students nationwide missing nearly a month of school each school year.
"If we think instruction in the classroom matters for kids to learn, they have to be there," she said.
Ms. Chang said some say schools can't change what happens in communities that contributes to absenteeism.
"While it's true schools alone can't change what happens, schools plus community can make a huge difference," she said.
Ms. Chang noted studies showing the impact of chronic absenteeism begins as early as pre-kindergarten, with the worst effects for low-income students.
Chronically absent students in pre-kindergarten are less ready for school.
Those who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read proficiently in third grade, a key year for later success.
By high school, chronic absenteeism can be a sign that a student may drop out.
"Dropping out from high school is a slow process of disengagement," she said.
Ms. Chang said there are three main reasons for absenteeism:
• Myths, such as a belief that only unexcused absences matter or only older students need good attendance.
• Barriers, such as a lack of access to health care, poor transportation or a lack of a safe path to school.
• Aversion, such as a child struggling academically, lack of engaging instruction or poor school climate.
She gave five strategies for tackling the issue: recognize good and improved attendance; engage students and parents; monitor attendance data and practice; provide personalized early outreach; and develop programmatic response to barriers.
If the five strategies are in place all year, she said, "You can reduce chronic absence, we think, by 20 percent in the first year."
So if the chronic absenteeism rate were 25 percent, the reduction would be 5 percentage points.
She said the improvement would likely be smaller in subsequent years as tougher cases remain.
She said ignoring the early warning signs of chronic absenteeism is like ignoring a check engine light on a car until the engine is ruined.
"I guarantee you you want to do the simple easy fix before serious consequences show up," she said.
Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane told the conference that the district found a pattern of chronic absenteeism that was "frankly shocking" when it began looking at the issue last school year.
She said attendance and grade point average are not only closely linked but also are the two biggest predictors of college success of Pittsburgh Public Schools students.
"If we're serious about college and career for our students, we're setting them up for failure if they think it's OK for them to just be gone a lot," she said.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955. First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM