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K-12 Education

Detroiters search for missing students

The fall of 2020 was a back-to-school season like no other. It had been nearly six months since the COVID-19 pandemic had altered our daily ways of life, including shuttering schools.

Few children returned to the classroom that fall, with the majority of school districts and parents opting for online learning. And some children did not engage in school at all.

According to data from the State of Michigan, the state’s student enrollment shrank by 61,940 students, or 4.1%, for the 2020-21 school year. Students from the Detroit Public Schools Community District accounted for 1,600 of these missing students. Unfortunately, this enrollment data doesn’t reveal the full scope. Many enrolled students did not end up attending school regularly, or at all. For example, during the first week of school only 78% of students enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools Community District showed up for class, be it in-person or online.

If students are not present in class, they cannot advance in school or in life. But even before the pandemic hit, more than half of Detroit students were chronically absent, missing 10% or more of the school year.

Why do Detroit students miss school? Read the report by Wayne State University’s Detroit Education Research Partnership

Recognizing the weight of the issue–Detroit has the highest rate of student absence of all big U.S. cities by far—Detroiters have been working to increase student attendance for years. In addition to individual school efforts, there has been collaboration across the city. A collective of schools, afterschool providers, places of worship, and other youth-serving organizations have worked together under the banner of Every School Day Counts Detroit to provide information and resources to families to help students attend class every day.

“An engaged, impassioned community is the only way to overcome the overwhelming problem,” said Larry Simmons, Pastor at Baber Memorial A.M.E. Church, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, and member of Every School Day Counts Detroit. “The community I serve identified student attendance as the most critical factor impacting Detroit kids’ ability to get ahead. Over the years, the friends and allies that surrounded me in this mission grew in number and impact. We formed the Every School Day Counts Detroit coalition to help kids engage in school every day. Knocking on doors and calling up schools, we talk to students, parents, and educators to learn what’s going on and how we as neighbors and youth-service providers can help… Attendance is the lifeblood of education. Without it, nothing else matters. Children are our hope for the future. To set them up for success, we all need to be present now.”

At the onset of the 2020-21 school year, more than 40 Detroit organizations came together through Every School Day Counts Detroit to help schools connect with families to answer the question, “Where are the children?

Detroit principals also took charge to ensure students were learning and cared for during the pandemic. Our conversations with school leaders revealed that school staff were connecting with a large majority of students three-to-four times per week through email, phone calls, virtual lessons, and in-person visits.

To do so, teachers and principals flexed their creativity, from posting videos on social media to personally delivering homework assignments, books, technology devices for online learning, and even meals. Detroit educators went above and beyond to help ensure students were doing well in all regards.

A case study by Attendance Works and Every School Day Counts Detroit of five Detroit schools deeply committed to strong student attendance found three common elements of successful efforts: collaborative leadership; comprehensive, multi-tiered strategies; and student and family engagement. 

As we begin the 2021-22 school year, educators and advocates are back at it. And they could use your help. Connect with the kids and families you know to inquire about back-to-school plans. Encourage early registration and showing up for class every day, asking what you can do to help. If you’re a parent who can offer transportation, set up a car-pool plan. If you are a parent, caregiver, or student in need of help, reach out to your school staff, teachers, and local community organizations.

Nothing should get in the way of a solid education. The future depends on it.  

The Skillman Foundation is a funder of Every School Day Counts Detroit

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