In October, when Daniella got a call from the Kent School District, she had been away from school for so long that she didn’t even know where to start to get back in.
A couple years ago, she felt out of place at a new high school and stopped going. She tried an alternative high-school completion program run by the district called iGrad.
Then COVID-19 hit. Her dad, who paints and fixes up houses, was cobbling together small jobs and gone a lot. When around, he urged her to go to school, but she lost motivation and left iGrad in October 2020.
She looked after the house. Months passed. “If schools were open, I feel like I could go back and actually talk to someone,” said the now-18-year-old. But they had long since gone remote.
Around the state and country, school districts have grappled with big enrollment drops and high numbers of disengaged students during the pandemic — to the extent that some, as far as educators know, have gone missing. They are not going to school anywhere at all.
“Disengagement isn’t a new problem, but this is a different kind of magnitude,” said Krissy Johnson, assistant director of attendance and engagement for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
One measure — the percentage of students attending Washington public schools in a given spring who don’t return in the fall and aren’t on record as home schooling, in private school, in another state or receiving a diploma or GED — shows an increasingly troubling pattern. Excluding prekindergarten students, about 23,300 kids disappeared from sight in 2019, as best as educators can tell. (They noted reporting from early years is less reliable.) The year after COVID hit, the number of missing kids shot up to roughly 27,800, the following year more than 29,000.
Not known is whether any of the students have come back.
Liz Huizar, who oversees youth programs in Seattle and South King County for the nonprofit El Centro de la Raza, said there was an assumption that students would re-engage with school when they could go in person last fall. “What we saw was that there was still a pretty critical population of students who hadn’t returned.” The structure, the social pressure, the need to catch up academically — it was all too much for some kids after so long away. Many, too, are working jobs to make up for family income lost during the pandemic. Even if they want to return to school, the path back can be complicated and seem overwhelming.
“There will be trailing effects, I think, in the coming months and years,” OSPI Assistant Superintendent Martin Mueller said. Research on disrupted education, for instance after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, shows those affected are less likely to be employed or in school even a decade later.
COVID’s exacerbation of a longstanding problem has brought it new but uneven attention.
The state superintendent’s office, drawing upon federal pandemic relief money, has launched projects to re-engage students by offering mentoring, tutoring and family visits, among other strategies. It has given out $14 million in grants to districts.
“It’s not a huge amount,” Mueller acknowledged. “That’s why we’re trying to be pretty targeted with it.” Twenty-two of the state’s nearly 300 districts, chosen because they had the poorest rates of attendance, dropout and other indicators of student performance, received funding.
Seattle Public Schools was not eligible, according to spokesperson Tim Robinson, though he said the district lacks staffing to follow-up with students who have withdrawn for uncertain reasons or after excessive absenteeism. It’s not clear how many that is, nor the district’s number of chronically absent students. To find out, the district is requiring The Seattle Times to submit a formal public records request it said would take a month to fulfill.
According to data released by OSPI in November, Seattle’s enrollment dropped by nearly 3,500 students, or about 6.4%, between fall 2019 and fall 2021.
The state also has not yet released some data. Last year’s attendance figures, due to be made public last Wednesday, are now scheduled for release this week and may raise questions even then. Reporting was not necessarily reliable at a time that “going to class” meant looking (or maybe not looking) at a screen.
“This is concerning to me, in itself: The fact that we just don’t know. We don’t know where kids are right now,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Washington-based research organization.
Lake said other areas around the country have been transparent in talking about the problem and what they intend to do about it. She pointed to San Antonio, where districts and community groups have been knocking on doors to find kids and bring them back to school.
That is happening in some parts of Washington.
Finding the missing students
At the beginning of this school year, the Kent district hired Karina Oscoy Cazares as a re-engagement specialist. The district stopped filing truancy petitions during remote learning, following emergency rules issued by OSPI so as not to penalize kids. But the district kept track of excessively absent students, drawing up a list that ran to almost 300 names.
“OK, so now who’s going to keep following up with these students?” the district asked itself at the end of last year, recalled Cheri Simpson, interim director of student and family support services.
Enter Oscoy Cazares. She tries to learn why students are not coming to school and looks for solutions. If parents are afraid to send them because of COVID, for example, she helps fill out applications for online schooling. Timing is key. A dragged out process can lose momentum.
So when she reached Daniella, Oscoy Cazares immediately arranged a meeting and invited Centro Rendu case manager Celina Quintana Marquez. Part of Catholic-run social services agency St. Vincent de Paul, Centro Rendu assists Latino families, including by partnering with the Kent district to launch a new program for truant or frequently absent students and their parents, and running a youth leadership group whose members support one another through the ups and downs of school and life.
Daniella was by then tired of being stuck at home. The meeting hatched a plan: Daniella would apply to the Washington Youth Academy, a free residential program in Bremerton run by the National Guard for youth who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out.
There was a long application, transcripts to send, a physical exam to schedule. Quintana Marquez walked Daniella through the process, and also helped her arrange to get additional credits she needed at a Renton Technical College high-school completion program.
The day before she left for Bremerton, where she would begin a strict regime requiring her to be up before dawn, Daniella said she was nervous but excited.
“We are so extremely proud of you,” Oscoy Cazares told her.
Last summer, people working on truancy programs for King County Superior Court also tried to find missing students — about 1,700 from five participating districts, according to Jennie Tibbitts, one of the staffers involved. Those districts were Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Renton and Tukwila.
An initial vetting determined roughly 30% had transferred elsewhere. The remainder of names went to community groups, which called, texted, emailed and knocked on doors to track kids down.
Even before the pandemic, the county’s Superior Court had long since abandoned using jail or fines to punish truant students and their parents, according to Connor Lenz, who manages related court programs. Instead, the court would refer students to programs aiming to help them.
The pandemic has brought renewed emphasis to that approach and prompted the court to start a new program to support struggling students before a truancy petition is filed. The so-called Community Attendance Support Team takes referrals from parents and schools as well as students themselves.
Getting kids back to school is complicated work, all the more so given the multiplicity of reasons keeping them away during the pandemic.
Terrell Dorsey, head of Unleash the Brilliance, an organization that gives education re-engagement workshops for students in King County and a growing number of other areas, did much of last summer’s outreach for the court. He said he was struck by the poverty he saw. Kids weren’t getting much sleep in noisy, crowded households. Without consequences like truancy petitions, Dorsey said, students lost the sense of urgency to wake up and attend class.
Because school is now in person, truancy petitions can be filed again. But some kids continue to miss school while they work, or look after younger siblings amid a child-care crisis.
Tara Hobson, principal of the Seattle World School, which serves recent immigrants, said teachers and staff at the beginning of the school year called expected students who hadn’t shown up. Many had jobs.
“Is there any way we can make your schedule work so that you can come to school?” the educators asked. “Oh, I can come two days a week or I can only come from, you know, 9 to 11,” Hobson recalled some saying. “We’re, like, no, you have to come enough so you can master some of this content.”
On the edge
For Selena, 17, remote learning was a nonstarter. “I felt like I didn’t have much support,” the Kent student recalled. She fell back on old habits.
“I wasn’t going to school. I wasn’t doing anything. I was just getting high out there in the streets,” she said.
A court sent her to an out-of-town rehab facility. When she came back in November, Quintana Marquez picked her up from the airport, ready to help get Selena back in school.
Quintana Marquez said she pushed to get Selena re-enrolled at her old high school, overcoming misgivings by administrators due to the teen’s past. Centro Rendu also offered Selena an internship and got her involved in its youth leadership group.
By mid-January, Selena was still in that group but she had stalled academically. One Wednesday afternoon, she met with David Lujano, Centro Rendu’s youth program manager.
“How was your day?” asked Lujano, a burly and ebullient 44-year-old. They were sitting in Lujano’s office, housed in a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Kent.
Selena talked quietly. “My day was OK. I didn’t go to school. I woke up and made it on time here.”
“I’m just wondering if there’s something that happened that is setting you back or making you rethink,” Lujano said.
“Being sick,” Selena murmured. She had come down with COVID and just emerged from isolation. But she was also disillusioned with school, and wanted to get her GED.
Centro Rendu could sign her up at iGrad and provide tutoring, Lujano said, but Selena would still have to show up at school for a certain number of hours a week and study largely on her own. “Do you feel like you’re up for that challenge?” he asked.
Something in Selena stirred. “I have faith in myself,” she said. Asked how much she wanted to get it done on a scale of 1 to 8, she declared herself an 8.
Lujano approved. In fact, he said, “I feel like you’re probably at a 10 … You’re still pushing forward.”
Others, not so much.
The next day, Lujano went to the home of a 17-year-old who hadn’t been going to school for at least two years — the entire course of the pandemic. He wasn’t coming home much either, and was hanging around gang members, his mom told Lujano.
He and Soledad Whirt, a staffer from Centro Rendu’s youth programs, hoped to catch the young man. But when they arrived in the late afternoon at his home, in a complex of small houses offering temporary shelter for homeless families, they found only his mom.
“He’ll come home and take a shower and then he’ll be gone,” she said.
Why he had strayed so far, from school and home, is undoubtedly a complex question. His mom said she couldn’t get her son to open a laptop during remote schooling.
But she also said the family had been on a downward spiral since the teen’s father was deported three years ago. And there had been serious family problems before; she alleged her ex had sold drugs and threatened her with violence. And now, she, her son and a younger daughter had to be out of their temporary home in a matter of weeks.
Those trying to help kids stay in school say you sometimes have to stabilize their families first. Lujano told the mom St. Vincent de Paul has a helpline that offers assistance with emergency needs like housing. It also has a food bank. “If you don’t mind, maybe I could put something together for you … we could deliver that.”
Meanwhile, could she let him know if her son appears? “If he shows up and I’m around, I can just shoot over.”