Missing students: Educators knock on doors to find them

Some educators have made it a priority to better identify and engage with students and families. Schools have streamlined the online experience, including reducing the number of passwords needed for learning platforms. And they have endeavored to better define how to take attendance and what it means to be absent or present when learning virtually. These measures are showing signs of early success as some districts report a decrease from the spring in the number of kids who are no-shows. But, with nearly 14,000 school districts nationally, the whereabouts of countless students are unknown, and some may never reenroll, administrators say. 

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An estimated 3,000 students, or roughly 3% of enrollment in San Antonio’s largest school district, Northside Independent, where Cable Elementary is located, didn’t participate in remote learning and couldn’t be reached by school staff this past spring, according to Barry Perez, a spokesperson for the district. Other districts around the United States have started reporting high numbers of missing students, echoing some reports from the spring that showed the potential for declining attendance. Poor internet, a lack of laptops and hot spots, and instability at home are the factors most commonly cited for making participation in online learning difficult for kids.

The reality for many schools is that the search “could lead to a dead end,” says Mr. Perez. As of September, he says, the district’s enrollment is still 2,700 students shy of projections. While the students might still show up, he says the district won’t learn of some children’s whereabouts unless they enroll in another district and their new school contacts them. 

Battling misperceptions

In the neighboring San Antonio Independent School District, Mohammed Choudhury, who serves as chief innovation officer, likewise anticipates that it will have children who won’t return this fall. Some families have decided that too many other things are going on in their lives to think about their kids’ school or how to do online learning, and they’ve given up, Mr. Choudhury says. He and other educators worry also about the perception among some families that when school buildings are closed, school is also closed. For them, there’s no substitute for in-person learning, “So, they’re not going to respond to anything or even log in,” Mr. Choudhury says. “We’re going to lose students.”

When his district moved to remote instruction in the spring, 6% of students (nearly 3,000) never logged on. Early on, members of the district’s family and community engagement teams knocked on doors to find the missing students, but those visits were suspended in late March due to local health orders. Phone calls to parents and messages on social media went largely unanswered.

Late this summer, as the lockdown lifted and schools prepared for the new school year, staff were able to go back out. As of early September, Mr. Choudhury says, they had found all but roughly 100 of the missing kids.

Mr. Choudhury, whose job is to problem solve, attributes the district’s progress to its early recognition that it had to closely monitor daily attendance and student learning online. As soon as school buildings shut, he and his office began working with other departments and the chief technology officer to create an easy-to-use phone app to allow educators to monitor students’ online activity. By April it was a data hub, identifying participation trends by neighborhood and school, and tracking student engagement at all 90-plus district schools – including any contact between students and staff. That enabled school-level administrators to decide where to quickly deploy staff for home visits and other outreach, Mr. Choudhury says.

The district won’t know until October just how many students it has retained or lost. That’s when it, like many school districts around the country, will submit to the state the all-important enrollment data that helps determine its funding.

“We had to do a lot of digging”

At Redland Elementary, a rural school in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, nearly 10% of its roughly 900 students were unaccounted for this spring, according to Principal Adrian Montes. That’s when he and his staff fanned out across the mostly agricultural community in groups, using addresses they had on file and carrying laptops and hot spots in case families needed them. But often they’d show up at an address only to find it was a parent’s place of employment, not their home, or that the family had moved away. 

“We had to do a lot of digging, a lot of searching, speaking to the owners of these businesses” and workers to locate the students, says Mr. Montes.

But the outreach deepened the school’s connection to its families, he says, and helped them understand more about the lives of the children it serves. Some 90% of the school’s students are Hispanic, including a large population of migrant children from Guatemala whose parents work in local fields and plant nurseries. School staff learned that many of those parents kept working through the pandemic, leaving their children home alone and often in charge of younger siblings. 

Redland Elementary staff distributed food and toiletries and worked with a district program that serves homeless families, Project UP-START, to ensure that students had access to services such as health care. Over the summer, Miami-Dade County Public Schools introduced new online learning software that will make it easier for students and their caregivers to log on remotely and will, ideally, increase participation in online learning this fall, Mr. Montes says.

Education experts say that closely monitoring attendance will be key to ensuring that kids don’t slip through the cracks. When schools closed abruptly this spring, few opted to take regular or daily attendance, according to Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works. “It wasn’t seen as the highest-priority concern,” she says.

Ms. Chang says that’s starting to change as schools reopen. But she cautions that districts ought to use attendance not for purposes of “high-stakes accountability,” school funding, or to punish parents whose kids don’t participate, but to learn which kids need support and which interventions are helping kids stay engaged.

The costs of kids missing instruction – even delivered online – are high. Studies show that students who miss 10% or more of school days a year are at risk of not learning to read in the early grades and dropping out in the later grades. Low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities are most vulnerable.

“Meeting families where they are”

Connecticut has long been in the forefront of addressing chronic absenteeism. From the outset of school closings in the spring, the Connecticut State Department of Education has worked to ensure that teachers continue to track student participation and give the data to school administrators, says Charlene Russell-Tucker, a deputy commissioner for the education board.

Still, the state fell far short of universal participation in remote school. In June, the results of a survey of 170 school districts in Connecticut by the state education board found that 22% of students (some 116,000) only partially or minimally participated and 4% (21,000) did not participate at all. Responding districts cited family, health, and trauma issues and internet and device access as the biggest obstacles to student participation in online learning. 

In an effort to boost participation in learning this school year, the state invited input from families on how to reopen schools. In August, Ms. Russell-Tucker facilitated two virtual “house calls” with doctors and other health care officials to answer families’ questions about going back to school during the pandemic. The state has also prioritized “meeting families where they are” and ensuring that students in remote learning can occasionally meet in person with their teachers and peers, says Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer with the education department. “That personal connection is huge,” he says. 

Back in San Antonio, Mr. Choudhury cautions that even if districts locate every missing student and do everything right to keep them engaged, schools are likely to see more turmoil.

“There’s an eviction crisis clearly looming,” he says. “Housing policy is education policy.”

“We could again have students who ‘disappear’ into the first months of the fall semester because of a disruption in the house when it comes to socioeconomic needs,” he says. “We’re not blind to that, but much of that is out of our control, and we will do everything we can to mitigate that.”

Meanwhile, the district is being more proactive about checking in with students on a weekly basis and supporting the schools in doing so, Mr. Choudhury says. “We know the in-person [contact] is our bread and butter,” he says. “We’re never going to drop the in-person.”


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