For the past few weeks, one image has been recurring in my mind. I keep picturing the living conditions of a student whose home I visited a few times when I was working as a community school coordinator in Baltimore. This student had struggled at other schools but was thriving at ours. He had repeated second grade, so his maturity compared to his peers was notable, but overall, he was just a really sweet kid. We did a number of home visits for him that year because he missed a lot of school, and as a black child from a low-income home with documented learning disabilities, school was even more important for him than most.
Every time I get frustrated with having to stay home - in my very comfortable apartment, with my husband and dog, and with fairly steady work - I've been trying to check myself. I keep thinking of my former student and imagining how difficult it must be to be confined to a space that may not be healthy, safe, or developmentally appropriate. I keep thinking about all the students I've known who love coming to school because there are people there who love them, two to three meals a day, and a sense of community. I keep thinking that I wish I knew how to help them all right now.
There is no question that low-income students struggle to get to school. (I wrote about this in my last blog post as well.) According to Attendance Works:
"Children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent—and face the most harm because their community lacks the resources to make up for the lost learning in school. Students from communities of color as well as those with disabilities are disproportionately affected."
Unfortunately, they're struggling to access school online as well. The New York Times reported this week that large percentages of low-income students in districts across the country are absent from the virtual education being provided as a result of COVID-19. So not only are students from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on the resources that many of them so desperately need and want to access, but they are also disconnected from their school communities. Since it is unclear when we will be able to return to work and school, there is the possibility that our highest-need children could be without school for many months, only exacerbating already-existing gaps in achievement and opportunity.
Making matters worse, black communities are disproportionately becoming victim to COVID-19. As one of the many social determinants of health, education joins other critical factors such as adequate housing, socioeconomic status, access to and coverage of healthcare, and more to comprise health outcomes for people and communities. As you can see in the chart below from the Kaiser Family Foundation, these factors have a profound impact on a person's ability to live a healthy life.
For low-income black communities in particular, the collective impact of these factors has not only disastrous outcomes but also clear roots. Dr. Camara Jones, a physician and epidemiologist, is cited in the article linked above about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black communities:
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation... This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance."
Our unequal and unfair society is how it is by design and not by chance. COVID-19 is showing us how this is even more urgently a matter of life or death. Other than overhauling our government systems and laws entirely, I struggle with not knowing how these issues can be fixed or what I as an individual can do to make things better for others. I just hope that opening up the dialogue about these issues will start to lead to changes for students like mine and the families and communities in which they live.
I naively said to my family a few weeks ago that I was lucky that my business wouldn't be affected in the way that so many restaurants and other small businesses are by the pandemic. I couldn't see then, but it has become incredibly clear since that every business and every industry have been and will be impacted on a massive scale by this pause in how we normally function. I am so fortunate that I can continue much of my work from home; yet every day, my heart breaks for other small business owners who are doing everything they can to keep their businesses afloat during this unprecedented time.
I spoke to one of my former clients recently, and I expressed how badly I felt that the cancellation of schools would drastically affect his work. His response to me was this: "This is a time to pivot!"
All week, I've been thinking about what he said and what a resilient attitude he had. I've also been pondering how this affects not only my work but the organizations and communities I serve. Take the issue of chronic absenteeism in schools. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10% of more of a given school year, and it has been empirically tied to a host of negative outcomes for students, including reading levels, special education identification, suspensions, dropout rates, and more. Students from vulnerable and underserved populations are at the highest risk. The good news about this issue is that it is both preventable and reversible, and I've found in my work that regular and collaborative data tracking on student absences and related interventions can make a huge difference for kids and schools. A recent article, Chronic Absenteeism in the Time of Coronavirus, discussed the implications of shuttered schools on how schools and systems typically address attendance issues, but also on what closed schools mean for the students themselves.
In thinking of how to pivot from the typical accountability measures associated with attendance, as Jordan's article suggests, how can we in the education field work together during this time to address the root causes -- the underlying reasons why so many students miss school? I am loving all of the positive news articles out there about school districts employing bus drivers to deliver meals, offering wifi hotspots to those without internet access at home, and teachers driving around students' neighborhoods to help them feel connected.
From my lens, I think this break from traditional schooling is an opportune time to go deep with our data and determine all that we can about which students are missing school the most and why. Once we've done that, we can get creative about our interventions for kids while they are in their homes and communities. I've got a few ideas in development for how my work can pivot to best serve our schools, districts, and non-profit organizations who have the most direct lines to children and families (more information on that to come!). In the meantime, if your organization is trying to better support its chronically absent students or more effectively engage with families during this time, let's chat. Shoot me an email here so that we can set up a conversation.
How are you planning to pivot? Share your ideas in the comments below - I'd love to start a conversation and channel our collective creativity!
As a community school coordinator in Baltimore City, it was a primary responsibility to track attendance and facilitate interventions for students with troubling numbers of absences. Often, figuring out why students were missing school was like solving a puzzle. Had we not been religiously tracking data to see the patterns in each student's attendance record, some of their periods of absenteeism and related needs would have gone unnoticed in our school's daily attendance statistics.
Some cases were easy to understand, even if they were hard to stomach... a child's relative was gunned down in the neighborhood and the family wanted to be together ... a parent's car broke down, so they couldn't get their son to school ... a family was evicted and was staying with relatives across town ... For many of those cases, we could support the families by arranging transportation or referring them to local service providers. Usually, the children ended up back in school soon after.
Others seemingly had no explanation for why their children were missing so many days of school. Figuring out the story behind one particular little girl became my mission. She missed an unthinkable 68 days in Pre-Kindergarten, and her mom was not very easy to get a hold of. By halfway through Kindergarten, when she already exceeded the criteria for chronic absence, I waited for her mom every day at dismissal. When I finally got to sit down with her, our conversation would be a turning point for my approach to attendance and family engagement.
What was so monumental? I gave her mom a simple compliment, and that turned things around. I told her that her daughter was always beautifully dressed and that her hair was always adorable, so I knew how much she cared for her daughter. She was shocked that I would compliment her parenting. She began to cry and told me about her current situation. We were able to arrange some supports for them to help get her super sweet girl to school.
Things weren't always smooth sailing for them after that, and her mom was still hard to reach. But this little girl went from missing over one-third of her Pre-K year to missing fewer than 10 days by the first half of 1st grade.
To me, she is a true success story for genuine, asset-based approaches to family engagement. Instead of focusing on what parents aren't doing, a simple comment about the great things they are doing can be very powerful. And of course, the conversation wouldn't have even been possible without the data pointing us in the right direction.
STRUCTURED SOLUTIONS wants to help your school have its own success stories. For Baltimore City Schools principals, we are an approved vendor on K-12 Buy! For principals anywhere else, I would love to talk to you.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.