‘Where are they?’ The race to get Alabama’s missing students back to school

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) —  Since the pandemic began this past March, there are students who have yet to enroll in school. Alabama’s top educators say the stakes are too high for their prolonged absence from the classroom. Extra eyes in the community may be needed, they say.

The number of missing students in Alabama schools topped 5,000 in November. State Superintendent Eric Mackey called it an educational crisis at the time. 

“Many of these students are just staying home,” Mackey said, offering no further explanation.

Uncovering the reason behind students’ chronic absenteeism has been the focus of Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin since the pandemic abruptly shut down schools in March. Dr. Gonsoulin presides over the second-largest school system in Alabama. The move to online learning revealed a flaw in the system; its 36,000 students did not have access to high-speed internet, or in some cases, could not afford it.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin

“We found out that even if we were to give many of our students a hotspot and a computer—because many of them live in what is called a dead area—they still could not receive high-speed internet,” Gonsoulin said. “They could not access what was going on online. So, we had to do a lot of paper-pencil activities.”

Jefferson County Schools received $4.6 million from the Jefferson County Commission to improve Wi-Fi connectivity. Gonsoulin said through a partnership with a Wi-Fi group, they have been able to put the school system’s Wi-Fi in the community for students to access. These areas include Oak Grove, Corner, Mortimer Jordan, Minor, Clay-Chalkville, and parts of Center Point and Pinson.

“With the seven areas that we are addressing it’s going to impact 17,000 of our students,” Gonsoulin said.

However, even after addressing the connectivity issue, hundreds of students remained unaccounted for. Of that 5,000, more than 1,000 remained unaccounted for in Jefferson County schools, the state superintendent announced in November.

“Of the ABM (Attendance Boundary Modification) for this year to last year, it showed that we were down 1100,” Gonsoulin said. “Now since that time we’ve gotten back about 300 to 400 students. We have identified 300 to 350 that might be in another educational setting. So, there is still another couple of hundred where we’re saying, ‘Ok, where are they?’”

Jefferson County Schools has hired more social workers to answer that question.  According to Dr. Gonsoulin, it’s working.

“We have hired three new social workers and contracted for an additional three social workers,” Gonsoulin said. “We now have a total of seven. We are now meeting working with those social workers to find children. It has been working very well. More and more students are returning to school.”

Gonsoulin said they are still working to establish a community campaign that could involve door-knocking and phone-calling to account for the students they’ve been unable to locate. Those students might be visible to others in the community who could help connect the families with the proper resources to resume their children’s formal education.

Gonsoulin knows the value of the community in this effort from his time in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. 

“My experience with the Katrina effort showed me that some of those people who need us the most are the people that find a way to get disconnected,” Gonsoulin said. ” So it’s incumbent upon us as educators and community leaders to go out there and find them and get them engaged.”

He gave an example of how a pastor in Mississippi whose parishioners live here in Alabama reached out to him about a family who had been attending his church’s online services.

“[The pastor] told us that he might have parishioners [with] young children that are not in school and haven’t been in school since March,” Gonsoulin said. “And so we investigated that, tracked it down, and sure enough there it was. And one day we were able to put those kids back in school.”

The Alabama State Department of Education has resources for school systems on their website, including the Attendance Playbook: Smart Strategies For Reducing Chronic Absenteeism In the COVID Era.

For older students approaching college, the stakes can be high. GEARUp Alabama’s Dr. Samantha Elliott Briggs said “beyond what we’re required to do —as educators committed to the goal of significantly increasing the number of students from the Alabama Black Belt who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education—we want to reach all of our students to make sure they’re ok, they’re connected, centered, and grounded amid so many different crises we’re currently facing (health, race, economic); that they know what’s expected of them to persist academically; and that they know the many ways we’re here to support them.”

Community support can make a big difference in outcomes for students, as chronic absenteeism can be a sign of other problems for students and families. That’s a focus for the Helping Families Initiative in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.

“We all know that the times are different,” District Attorney Danny Carr said. “These are not typical circumstances, so we have to approach things in a nontraditional manner.”

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr

Under Alabama law, parents are responsible for their child’s school attendance and county district attorneys enforce that law.

“It doesn’t even say the DA shall prosecute murder cases,” DA Carr pointed out. “But it says I shall enforce compulsory attendance, which means that there is a priority on that. So for us, typically a family will go to a courtroom and the judge will waive a finger…and they’ll all leave out feeling worse than they felt when they went in. What we’ve done is try to get out in front of it and try to be a part of the solution instead of continuing the problem.”

Truancy and educational neglect are punishable by $100 fines and up to 90 days in the county jail. 

“We hope it never gets to that point, but that is always a possibility,” DA Carr said. “We just want to encourage the people to get their kids in school, get them enrolled, and go from there.”

DA Carr comes from a family of educators and says he realizes there is a greater cost to children, families, and societies when children are not optimizing their education.

“We understand if a child is not in school then they may end up in what we call the pipeline to prison and that pipeline to prison is real,” DA Carr said. “I often tell people unless you are rich or you have a skill, education is the key.”

In January, Attendanceworks.org published a report this year tracking how schools in each state are taking attendance during the pandemic. More than half of the states require daily attendance taking. In Alabama, attendance taking is left to local discretion. 

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