Clutching a portfolio and a messenger bag with a city schools logo, Monique Robbins knew her unannounced visit to the homes of chronically absent students in West Baltimore on a recent misty evening might seem ominous.
So when she was met with narrowed eyes and a defensive stance, she was ready.
"I'm just a volunteer and a member from the community, here to let you know that whatever you need help with to get your child to school this year, we have resources," Robbins said, almost in one breath, to the first parent to open the door a sliver.
Robbins is part of the system's new School Every Day program, the city's first large-scale, grass-roots campaign to improve attendance.
The campaign — which mirrors the system's "Great Kids Come Back" effort for dropouts — has been under way since the summer. It targets four areas where schools have a high number of students who missed at least 20 percent of the days in the last academic year or hadn't returned with the rest of the district's 83,000 students last month.
The goal is to reduce the rate of chronic absenteeism by 20 percent in those areas.
The woman who opened her door to Robbins explained that her son, a student at Frederick Elementary School, hadn't started the school year, in its second week, because he didn't have proper immunization records.
By the end of the exchange, Robbins had handed over an alarm clock and a slew of literature about obtaining up-to-date shots and records.
"Mother to mother, you never know what you'll need help with," Robbins said to the woman, who by then had begun nodding in agreement. "But whatever it is … we can help."
Robbins, a missionary of Harvest Church and Ministries COGIC, is one of a growing number of volunteers from across the city who have been canvassing the targeted neighborhoods.
Though the school system has increasingly placed attendance among the most critical issues it faces, officials say the message still has not fully resonated with families. Last school year, about 5,700 students were habitually truant, meaning they had at least a month of unexcused absences, or missed 20 percent of school days in a given marking period or semester.
The school system's Office of Attendance and Truancy filed charges against about 500 parents last school year for failing to send their students to school, and a dozen faced jail time.
Since 2004, when there were about 9,200 habitually truant students, the overall number has declined. But because there is a sizable achievement gap between students who attend school regularly and those who don't — in 2010 there was an average 25 percentage-point gap in Maryland School Assessments scores — city school officials said the situation is still dire.
In noting the city's 7 percent truancy rate during his annual State of the Schools address last month, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso told administrators that in the wake of academic declines, "it makes it very hard to improve as a system if that rate doesn't continue to drop."
But the message to families needs a personal touch, said Heidi Stevens, coordinator of the School Every Day campaign.
The campaign has recruited church members, senior citizens, firefighters and even Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Hundreds of students received postcards — designed by Merganthaler Vocational-Technical Senior High School — from officials and community members, encouraging them to come to school this year.
"We miss you," read a handwritten postcard from the mayor to a second-grader at City Springs Elementary/Middle School. "I'm expecting great things from you this year. Baltimore is counting on you."
The canvassing is a cornerstone of the campaign, Stevens said, because it allows community members to hear and see firsthand the problems families are facing. Volunteers, primarily from local churches, are equipped with an alarm clock — 500 have been distributed so far — and fact sheets outlining resources for every excuse, including grieving, sickness, homelessness and oversleeping.
The clock helps, she said.
"It's amazing how receptive families can be when they see that you're not coming to throw them in court, and you physically have something in your hand to show them that," Stevens said.
"A lot of families, because they have multiple issues, this is just a symptom," she said. "They might get a summons or a bill in the mail. But they don't get a note or encouragement from people they don't even know."
But on Robbins' last door-knock of her first canvass, her visit to grandparent Karen Earle was like watching old friends reunite.
Standing on her front porch watching the young woman approach, Earle thought she'd won a home makeover. She could use more space, she thought, because she was caring for her grandson, a second-grader at Maryann Winterling Elementary, and her 12-year-old daughter had a heart attack two years ago.
Her grandson, Keondra, turned up on the absentee rolls because he had transferred from Frederick Elementary. He actually has a near-perfect attendance record, Earle said, but she still accepted a fact sheet on resources available in the city for guardians caring for relatives.
"But, wait … can I call you myself?" Earle asked Robbins. "I just need the resources and the network, and I haven't found it yet."
Twenty minutes later, the women, both visibly emotional, went their separate ways. They vowed that with prayers and the school system's help, Earle may be able to find a house big enough for her children and grandchildren without having to move out of the city, disrupting Keondra's education.
As she peeled herself away from the family — there were several embraces before she finally left — Robbins said she couldn't wait to recruit more volunteers.
"Wow," she said. "That was more than just a door-knock. That was a testimony. If we just did that at one house, imagine what everyone else is doing all across the city."