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Middle school teacher Brandee Brandt pounded on the door of a ground-level apartment in San Antonio for the third time one January afternoon in search of one of her students.
“It’s Ms. Brandt! Davey, are you there?” she called, her face close to the apartment door.
She could hear voices inside, and finally Davey’s older brother cracked open the door.
“You really aren’t going away are you?” he said, trying to sound annoyed as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“You know we’re not giving up!” said Brandt, who asked the teen to go get Davey, 13, who had suddenly stopped doing his online schoolwork.
Brandt and fellow eighth grade teacher Emily Countryman from Rawlinson Middle School would spend the day knocking on doors, from public housing apartment buildings to a middle class suburban neighborhood where nearly every house had a doorbell with a built in security camera.
Since the beginning of the school year, a squad of Rawlinson teachers have visited around 100 homes. Once every few weeks, school staff develop a list of kids in urgent need of a visit. Two teachers volunteer, they set a date and the school hires substitute teachers.
With half the school’s 1,350 students learning remotely, and thus at a higher risk of chronic absence, teachers from Rawlinson have come knocking at the first sign of trouble this school year.
“I felt a sense of urgency,” Rawlinson Principal Sherry Mireles said. “If they’re not getting their schooling it's our responsibility. I’m not going to allow a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old to drop out. Not on my watch.”
Many of the visits pay off: Kids log on again, or turn in work for the first time in weeks.
It’s often not a one-time visit: The teachers keep dropping by until the student is found, logged on and participating. They know even the most disengaged kid can be found.
The teachers’ relentless pursuit of these kids is why Rawlinson averaged 99% attendance in the weeks after Christmas break, said Mireles — about 8 percentage points higher than the district middle school average.
Attendance is critical to learning in any situation, most experts agree: Kids can’t learn if they’re not in school, and already data from the COVID-19 era is grim. Chronic absenteeism among Black students in some Ohio districts is 47%. In Detroit, the school year kicked off with only 78% of students in attendance after a week. In several surveyed California districts, the chronic absentee rate for Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaskan Native students was between 19% and 29%.
The Texas Education Agency does not yet have statewide absentee data for the 2020-21 school year. However, the pandemic’s toll on attendance showed itself immediately when school buildings shut down in March 2020. In the five school years before the pandemic, statewide attendance rates hovered just under 93%. In just three months, the pandemic pulled the statewide average for the entire 2019-20 school year down to 89%.
The consequences are daunting. In the Ohio districts, reading scores have fallen by 7% after years of hard-won gains. In Texas, additional learning loss due to absenteeism will compound the six months already lost during the spring shutdowns and summer, according to an optional statewide assessment administered by the Texas Education Agency.
Most of the students on Brandt and Countryman’s list that January afternoon had either stopped logging on for classes or turning in work. Some were just starting to show signs of giving up—regularly dropping single classes. Others hadn’t been seen or heard from in months.
Davey (the student's real name is not being used to protect his privacy) was just beginning to show real signs of fading, Countryman said. He’d stopped participating in class online. Without his camera on, she couldn’t even tell if he was at his computer. He hadn’t turned in the most recent test in her class.
Around the state, districts are reporting dire numbers for remote learning attendance. Dallas ISD reported that thousands of students, one in five high schoolers, are considered chronically absent so far this school year. Smaller districts have done away with remote learning entirely to try to re-engage kids.
Georgetown University’s Future-Ed think tank and the nonprofit Attendance Works produced a report detailing how schools could fight chronic absenteeism during COVID-19. It included relationship-building home visits as one “promising” intervention. The Rawlinson teachers combine visits with a tool the study labeled “strong”: reminders to parents about the importance of attendance, consequences of absenteeism and how many days the student has missed. The study calls this “nudging.”
Brandt and Countryman do a lot of nudging on their visits.
Wearing matching masks and backing up 6 feet when the door opened, they made their pleas to students and parents to stay engaged.
They've brought sport bottles emblazoned with the school mascot, tech help, groceries and school supplies.
When Davey finally came to the door, he was bare-footed and sleepy-eyed, explaining his sleep pattern had slowly changed over the past few months, so that he was staying up all night, and sleeping during the day. The teachers gave him a nudge.
He didn’t need to log on for Zoom sessions if he was too sleepy, they allowed. But he needed to turn in the work. He needed to retake the test he’d blown off. He needed to pass his classes.
“Don’t you want to go to ninth grade?” Countryman asked Davey.
“Yeah…” he said with a shy and sheepish smile.
At another stop, Rochelle Mata told Brandt and Countryman that school Zoom calls overlapped with her job, which kept her tied to her computer from long before sunrise to mid-afternoon. Her middle school boys had started taking advantage, not logging on.
Even if they miss the calls, the teachers reminded Mata, her sons could still turn in their work as long as it's before 11 p.m.
That policy is helpful, Mata said, but when they had questions about their assignments, she often didn’t know how to help. So they just wouldn’t turn in anything.
“I feel like they feel lost,” Mata said.
Brandt had an answer for that too. Their district, Northside Independent School District, has a tutoring hotline manned by teachers from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night.
Every need they can meet and every burden teachers can ease will make it more likely kids will have the support at home to engage at school. At Mata’s house, they left a bag of groceries.
Brandt and Countryman have heard similar stories about kids taking advantage of parents’ work schedules at suburban homes with deep front porches and exuberant landscaping.
“Some of the kids get engaged just to get us off their back,” Countryman laughed.
Others are more defensive or evasive. At one house, the student who came to the door said his parents could not join them, though an adult was easily visible. While he talked to the teachers, a tiny hand reached out from behind the door and tugged at his socks. It was his little sister, maybe 3 or 4 years old, demanding attention.
Several homes on the route were dark and quiet. Brandt and Countryman waited a long time, and knocked repeatedly. They peered in windows to see if lights were on, pressed their ears to the door to listen for voices. On a previous route, they once enlisted the help of a maintenance man who was on his way into the apartment, asking him to send a family member out to talk to them.
At one apartment, a grandmother answered the door. Her granddaughter had been living with her, but she recently went back to live with her mother. The grandmother hadn’t known the girl stopped logging on and promised to pass along the teachers’ message.
Another address, which the school used for its attempted communication with a student who’d disappeared in October, turned out to be the maintenance workshop at an apartment building. Brandt and Countryman went to the complex’s office to do some sleuthing.
By the end of the day, the teachers were tired, but upbeat. In a time when so much seems beyond their control, these visits help stave off a feeling of helplessness.
“[The students] are capable of so much more,” Brandt said. “The pandemic shouldn’t be the reason they don’t succeed.”
Two weeks later, Countryman said, the visits had paid off.
The grandmother had made good on her promise, and her granddaughter is turning in her work, passing with flying colors.
The school found the student whose address turned out to be a maintenance workshop. She is logging into class again.
And Davey logged into class that very afternoon, completed his work and took a make-up test. He scored 100.
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