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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is appealing to schools to help cut chronic absenteeism by providing mentors and other support for students who miss too much classroom time — instead of suspending or expelling them.

It’s one of the steps the administration outlined in a new effort announced Wednesday to keep kids from habitually missing school.

An estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent each year. Students are considered chronically absent if they missed at least 18 days in a school year — so nearly a month of school, or about 10 percent of the school year.

The Education Department says frequent absences can lead to school children falling behind academically and failing to graduation on time. To fight that, the department joined the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Housing Urban Development as part of a multi-agency effort that’s offering guidance to schools and will see new statistics on the scope of the problem in early 2016.

Among some of the steps that schools should take, the agencies said, is to revise discipline policies to remove punitive consequences such as suspensions and expulsions for chronically absent students.

Instead, they recommend that officials take a deep dive at the school-level to see why these kids are absent so often.

If it’s a shy or troubled child, for example, then maybe they need a mentor at the school, the departments said. If it’s a homeless child, then the school might reach out to local services that might be able to support the family and help keep that child from missing so many school days.

“We have to be thoughtful and careful to provide structure and support, rather than suspend or punish students who are struggling to make it to school every day,” said John King, a senior Education Department official who will take over as acting secretary in December. “It sends the wrong message to tell a student who is not coming to school that they are unwelcome.”

Another recommendation: better early-warning systems at schools that could flag students as they approach too many missed days, well before the 18-day mark of chronic absenteeism.

In the spring of next year, the Education Department plans to release for the first time school-level data on students across the country who missed at least 15 days of school for any reason. The department says the data should help pinpoint where chronic absenteeism is most prevalent and who it affects the most.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation plans to give $1 million to support the new anti-absenteeism initiative.