Where Are the Children?
At The Skillman Foundation we often lead with a critical question to our community, “How are the children?” A traditional greeting of the Masai Tribe, it is a litmus test, knowing that if children are faring well, our whole community is doing well. But in this moment, I have a greater worry that we may not even be able to answer the question, “Where are the children?”
This Wednesday, October 7, is Count Day. Schools will report the number of students present on this day to determine their share of per-pupil funding. This year, schools must respond in a different way than ever before, tracking attendance through layered two-way interaction, monitoring across virtual and in-person settings.
Our public schools stretch tight budgets to meet the needs of children and families. But Count Day is not only essential to the well-being of schools, but to the well-being of children. Aside from funding children’s education, Count Day will help communities understand where, and if, children have been enrolled in school.
In Detroit, answering the question “Where are the children?” is made all the more complicated by the city’s fragmented system of schools. Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest school district, serves 51,000 children, accounting for half of Detroit’s child population. The other half attend an assortment of charter schools and neighboring suburban districts.
This week, Detroit Public Schools Community District issued an urgent request for volunteers to canvass neighborhoods in effort to reach thousands of children who have not yet shown up for school. The district shared that a number of students enrolled in grades K-3 have not yet attended school and that many students enrolled in grades 7-12 have attended school at least once, though sporadically.
Chronic absence has been a long-term issue in Detroit. In the years leading up to the pandemic, more than half of Detroit students were missing at least 10 percent of the school year. Statewide, around 20 percent of Michigan students have been chronically absent. Along with a deep concern that some children may not be enrolled in school, there is also worry that chronic absence will intensify.
The reasons for youth not being school are varied and worthy of deeper understanding and support. In today’s landscape of remote learning, lack of necessary technology or reliable internet connectivity is a major hurdle—one that Detroit’s business and philanthropic communities have rallied to solve. Young children may not be participating in school due to family work obligations or health safety concerns. Some parents may be attempting homeschooling for these reasons. High school aged youth may feel pressure to choose work over school to contribute to their household during this time of crisis. Youth may struggle with the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has brought on, making it hard for them to engage regularly in school.
I am not alone in holding these concerns. A community coalition, Every School Days Counts Detroit, has banded together a partnership of schools, afterschool program providers, places of worship, and other youth-serving organizations to contact families to ensure children are enrolled and attending school. At the onset of the school year, more than 40 Detroit organizations came together to help schools with family outreach. They have checked in on how children are doing, helped parents navigate school enrollment processes, coordinated student learning pods, and connected families to a variety of support resources. Outside of the Every School Day Counts Detroit coalition, many other organizations and individuals have no doubt done the same. But as the call for outreach volunteers from Detroit Public Schools Community District suggests, more action and coordination are needed.
We all have a role to play in answering the question, “Where are the children?” Parents should ensure their children are enrolled and present for Count Day and remain engaged throughout the school year. Family members and neighbors should check in and offer support. School boards should ask for weekly student attendance reports and hold schools accountable to reach out to families whose children are not regularly attending class to ensure their well-being. If a school cannot locate a student, it should connect with local afterschool programs, social service agencies, and other community partners.
These individual efforts are necessary, but alone, they are insufficient. There is too high of a risk that our most vulnerable children will get lost in the cracks. There must also be coordination.
The Mayor’s Community Education Commission can lead this effort in Detroit, collecting and sharing data from the city’s many school districts to create a citywide view of where children are enrolled and call attention to children missing from school. The Community Education Commission is uniquely positioned to lead the charge, working with schools to analyze student enrollment and participation, and calling the community to action.
All children count, so all children must be counted. This Wednesday and every day.