Chicago had a long list of disengaged students. Did efforts to reel them in pay off?

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

In the run-up to this fall’s reopening, Richards Career Academy on Chicago’s South Side set out to reach 180 students the district had flagged as at risk of missing the school year’s start — nearly 80% of its student body. 

It hired parents to work the phones, tapped educators to knock on doors and enlisted students such as Gerlia Baker, a soft-spoken senior on the basketball team. Gerlia took it upon herself to try and persuade a cousin and fellow basketball player whose attendance plummeted amid the pandemic to show up when classes started. Would he listen?

Then, after the school year began, administrators investigated why some students did not come, turning to neighbors, former elementary schools and other students for clues.

The school’s campaign was part of a broader push by Chicago Public Schools to re-engage tens of thousands of students who either tuned out remote learning last year or logged on only intermittently. The district flagged about 70,000 students as at risk of disconnecting from learning — and directed schools to track them down. It paid almost $2 million in federal pandemic relief dollars to nonprofits and churches to help with home visits and canvassing, though some schools such as Richards opted to handle the outreach in-house.

On the eve of the school year’s start, schools had reached out to roughly 90% of those students and connected with almost two-thirds of them, according to data obtained last month by Chalkbeat Chicago. But those outreach rates varied greatly across campuses, with some schools trying to contact only a small fraction of students. 

Some critics, such as the district’s principal group, say the effort has been too focused on hitting phone call targets, rather than going all out to reconnect with the toughest-to-reach students. Some said the program was at times plagued by poor coordination among the district, campuses and the community groups the district hired. 

District officials have pointed to early attendance numbers to declare the ongoing effort a success: A Day 1 attendance dip this fall was modest, given the early, pre-Labor Day start and the pandemic’s ongoing pressures. Enrollment data Chicago Public Schools has not yet disclosed would help paint a more complete picture; leaders have signalled the district saw another enrollment drop.

In any case, experts and educators stress the work of reengaging students will continue long after schools have gotten them through the doors.

“We haven’t all been in the building with children wall-to-wall for 18 months,” said Ellen Kennedy, the principal at Richards. “We have to figure out how to function together and do school again.”

A national push

School districts across the country have been trying to re-engage students as they return to full-time in-person learning. Detroit, for instance, leaned on a well-established, in-house home visit program at dozens of its schools, putting about $11 million in federal relief dollars toward that effort. Educators in New York City also fanned out to visit students’ homes, part of a national American Federation of Teachers door-knocking initiative for which the union earmarked $5 million.

In Chicago, district officials used attendance, grades, and demographic data at the end of the last school year to calculate which students were at risk of disengaging from school. 

Based on late August data the district provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request — the most recent available a few weeks into the school year — more than 55,000 students were deemed at moderate risk while about 13,000 were flagged as high risk, meriting a visit to their families’ homes. The data does not include students at charter and options schools — which brings the total to roughly 100,000 students previously identified by the district as in need of more intensive outreach over the summer.

At about a dozen district high schools, most of them small schools on the South and West sides — from Austin College and Career Academy on the West Side to Emil G. Hirsch Metropolitan High School on the Far South Side — 80% or more of all students were flagged. 

The district tracked closely how many of those students schools tried to call and actually reached. Some campuses reported tracking down every single flagged student, while others tried calling only a small number of the students on their lists. Schools overall reported that they only attempted to connect with fewer than half of about 1,900 students marked “inactive” the previous spring after they stopped attending; campuses likely knew at least some of these children had moved away.    

Some schools got outside help for the outreach. Chicago Public Schools spent about $1.8 million to enlist 17 community groups for help with home visits, paying each of them anywhere from $20,000 to $246,000, according to district financial data. It also paid 26 churches and other groups $5,400 to help with canvassing families in the days before the school year started. 

The remainder of the money went for back-to-school bashes, T-shirts, yard signs, TV and radio advertising, and more. In total, the district earmarked about $5.2 million toward the reengagement initiative.

Christine Pitts of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which is tracking reengagement efforts across large districts, says Chicago’s program merits props for using data to guide outreach — and leveraging community-based organizations and churches. 

“These groups showed up during COVID in a way that districts just could not,” she said. 

One school’s outreach campaign

Even though many of its students were flagged by the district, Richards Career Academy decided to pass on the district’s offer to get outside help with calls and home visits. At the school, leaders felt that opening the door to faces familiar from campus would be more effective. 

“We’re a small enough school, and it’s all about connections,” Assistant Principal Martin Walsh said. “It’s a more personal touch.”

Richards, on a squat brick campus in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood where recent girls’ basketball trophies grace the front office, serves a student population hit hard by the pandemic. Half of its roughly 250 students are Black, and the other half are Latino. Almost all are low-income. About a third experience housing instability, and almost a third are English language learners. 

Here, leaders say they set the stage for the bid to reconnect with students well before the end of last school year. The school’s security guards turned into “attendance ambassadors” who deployed to the homes of students with spotty attendance almost every week. 

The school held outdoor Fun Fridays for families, and gently pressed parents who questioned why they needed to meet with teachers for virtual report card pickups. And it asked students such as junior Denzel Hill, the captain of the football team, for help: Could he reach out to a fellow player about coming to school in person? Could he find teens in the cafeteria who went to elementary school with a student who had stopped attending? 

Then, when the school year started, school staff met daily to whittle down a list of students who were missing without an explanation. One morning during the second week of school, the enrollment team at Richards gathered in an empty classroom, pulling up the school’s student roster on their laptop screens. They tackled key questions: Who didn’t come today, and why?

The school was still trying to track down about 30 students who had not arrived, and Mirella Valdivia, the school’s parent coordinator, was on hand to offer insight into what might be going on with families to explain some of the absences. 

“The benefit of being a small school is we have a very kid-by-kid approach,” said Kennedy, the principal, whose laptop screen is decorated with Post-its that say “unapologetically student centered” and “patience.”   

But overall, the mood was upbeat that morning: Eleven students who had been missing the first week of school had shown up. And with an influx of new families to the neighborhood, enrollment was already beyond projections, with one of the largest freshman classes in years.

Problems with outreach

Some school and nonprofit leaders said Chicago’s effort could have benefited from better coordination and more resources dedicated to the hardest-to-reach students.

The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council on the Southwest Side was one of the community-based groups the Chicago school district enlisted to help with home visits. Patrick Brosnan, its executive director, said he commends the district for launching the outreach effort — an important step at a time the pandemic strained ties that bind school communities. 

But he wished the district had provided more training ahead of the visits. His group supplemented the district’s training, talking to staffers about how to keep the visits from feeling punitive to families. 

Principals got a last-minute heads-up about the outreach; some did not even know which organization would be conducting it, Brosnan said. His group heard from at least three parents who, inspired by the home visits, reached out to their schools — only to find that staff was unsure about how to route their calls.

“There were not the resources on the other end to create a holistic, all-hands-on-deck approach to this,” he said.

Brosnan also said the district’s effort did not directly address a key barrier for families considering whether to return to in-person learning: deep anxiety about COVID in neighborhoods such as Brighton Park, where the virus exacted a heavy toll. 

A high school principal, who asked to remain anonymous because the district had not authorized an interview, agreed that a lack of coordination was an issue. 

“We were never told who was doing that outreach; parents were never told whom to talk to at the school,” that principal said. “It was blind engagement without much input from us.”  

At the district’s suggestion, the school hired several parents to help with contacting families, but they still haven’t been paid by the district, the principal said.    

Troy LaRaviere, the head of the Chicago’s principals association, said he felt district officials were too preoccupied with putting check marks next to the names of students whose parents had gotten a phone call. Schools instead needed creative strategies to reconnect with kids,  dedicated staff and budgets for “the kind of significant outreach to get the kids who are most disengaged.” 

He was skeptical that phone calls and back-to-school bashes would bring back some of those missing students, noting that the “kids coming to these events are not the kids we need to reach.” 

What’s next?

But district leaders said in late September that the engagement efforts had paid off. Case in point: attendance data from the beginning of the school year. With 91.2% of students reporting to campuses, first-day attendance was below recent rates that have hovered around 94%, but within striking distance of other years when the district also opted for a pre-Labor Day start. 

Officials flagged lower attendance for Black and pre-kindergarten students, but said that rates had ticked up in the second weeks of classes, shrinking some of those gaps. The district has not yet provided a full accounting of how many students are on its attendance rolls: It has just offered percentages and no enrollment data, making it harder to say which students are counted. 

“Our top priority over the summer was to re-engage families,” said Sarah Kempner, the district’s executive director for enterprise data strategy. “And we believe these numbers represent our successful efforts.”

Home visits and other outreach will continue, Kempner said. The district is also launching a new network-level program called The Nest, where schools can refer students who have been tracked down but remain reluctant to enroll for any reason. 

Officials vowed to engage with families who sat out the start of the year because of COVID concerns; some parents have said that they were quickly cut off from digital access and communication with their schools.

“I’m going out to schools where they share with me about students who have been disconnected last year and who are now attending every single day,” schools chief Pedro Martinez told Chalkbeat a week into the top job. “For the vast majority of our schools, what I’m seeing more and more is this emphasis on, ‘We just have to continue to keep them engaged in school.’” 

The high school principal who spoke with Chalkbeat anonymously said that the school has been buoyed by relatively high turnout at the start of the school year. 

“The kids and families were really ready to come back,” the principal said. 

At Richards, school leaders say getting students through the door was a key first step in what will likely be a long-term process. Like schools across the district, Richards has started gauging where students stand academically after last year’s disruption.

When the initial excitement of returning to the building subsided after the first two weeks, average attendance here dipped to about 80%, though it remains in line with pre-pandemic rates. After a year of learning from home, some students are still struggling to ease back into classroom routines. The cousin of Gerlia, the basketball player, came back, but he’s chronically late for classes. She recently spoke with him about the importance of coming on time.

“I want him to be successful,” she said, “just as I want to be successful.” 

Data analysis by Sam Park.