How schools are finding thousands of students they couldn’t reach when the pandemic began

Pass or Fail

LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — Leander ISD parent Elva Franco said she finally feels more at ease settling into the school year this fall. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Texas in March, she worried students in the Cherry Hollow neighborhood of Cedar Park would be left behind.

“As parents, we had that fear, and our kids did as well,” the mom of four LISD students said in Spanish. “What will happen with us? Will we not be able to keep going to school?”

Students in Franco’s neighborhood go to Reed Elementary, and educators at Reed were equally worried. There were some students they simply couldn’t find when in-person instruction was suspended in March.

Elva Franco helps her son Jael with school (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala)
Elva Franco helps her son Jael with school (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala)

Some lacked accurate contact information in their files at school. Others lived in a home without a phone or internet. Either way, educators had no idea if these missing students were still learning, and, more urgently, if some students were getting the free meals and social support they relied on at school.

In Leander ISD alone, educators were unable to get in touch with almost 1,600 students when in-person instruction was suspended in the spring. That’s enough students to fill two elementary schools.

Missing across Texas

The problem wasn’t limited to Leander ISD. Educators all over Texas were worried about missing students. Tens of thousands of students were defined as “non-contactable” by the Texas Education Agency in the spring.

Finding these students required a creative, all-hands-on-deck approach. In Austin ISD, staff tracked down students by making contact at food distribution sites, calling neighbors and connecting with wrap-around partners like the United Way, the YMCA and the locsl housing authority. They also relied on bilingual staff with relationships with certain families and leaned on custodians, front office clerks and tech specialists to reach out to students.

In March, 83% of students in Austin ISD were reported non-contactable. Data from the Texas Education Agency shows by May, that number was below 1%.

Relying on relationships

Relying on connections built long before the pandemic began proved to be the key to reconnecting with missing students at Reed Elementary, too.

“Our kids were very nervous and anxious because they didn’t know how they were going to be able to continue their classes,” Franco said.

Enter Carolyn Slavin, a bilingual librarian who works at Reed Elementary and who built a trusted relationship with Franco over the past school year.

Slavin works closely with English language learners, who make up about 7% of students in LISD, and many of those students live in Cherry Hollow. So, Slavin and Franco, who speaks Spanish and some English, went door-to-door there to track down students and find out how they could help families transition to virtual learning. They also had parents fill out note cards showing how many children lived in the home to make sure no child was left behind. 

“Usually it’s ‘I want my kid to keep learning, I want my kid to stay in school and get access to every single opportunity that all families deserve,'” Slavin said.  

To ensure continued contact and engagement, Slavin delivered books to children in Cherry Hollow and personally tested district-issued hot spots to address connectivity concerns within the neighborhood.   

“I’ll be bringing lots of materials in Spanish and English to make sure our students have that material to continue reading and learning,” Slavin said.  

Staying connected

Other districts like Manor ISD also relied on home visits to keep in contact with students.

Dr. Niccole Delestre, principal at ShadowGlen Elementary, said her team used a digital tracking system to see which students were engaged in online learning. If the system showed a student wasn’t showing up online, staff would visit their home to check on them.

The TEA’s engagement data shows those strategies worked. Ninety-one percent of students in the district were contactable in March when in-person school was suspended. By May, that number was up to 99%. 

Not all districts had the same success. Partnerships with groups like the YMCA and United Way — the kind of organizations educators in Austin ISD leaned on to help make contact with students — aren’t always available in smaller districts. And, trusted relationships like the one Slavin cultivated with the families in the Cherry Hollow neighborhood take time to build.

“They trust someone who has communication from people in the district,” said Franco about her neighbors in Cherry Hollow. “When people see Ms. Slavin a lot of people say, ‘Oh it’s true, they are going to help us.'”

District officials in Leander ISD consolidated its data on student engagement from March to May. That means measuring the success of people like Slavin’s efforts in a statistical way isn’t easy, but Franco said she has no doubt the librarian made a difference for the families in Cherry Hollow.

“I think that if we would have never gotten in touch with Mrs. Slavin, and she wouldn’t have gotten in touch with us, the reality is lots of students would have stayed at home, no school, just waiting to go back to school,” Franco said.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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