Campaign aims to combat chronic absenteeism by getting students enrolled in Detroit schools

A temporary divider in the hallway of Green Valley Elementary serves as an intervention classroom.
The campaign is targeting students who have yet to inform their schools whether they’ll be taking in-person or online classes, and students who haven’t yet enrolled. (Melanie Asmar)

In a city with high rates of chronic absenteeism, schools and community organizations are working together to make sure parents get their students enrolled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With just days before the start of the school year, Detroit school district officials say they haven’t been able to reach 10% of their students this summer to enroll them for the new school year, and charter officials say they’re having similar problems.

During a press conference Tuesday morning, school and community leaders announced continued efforts to enroll students that include visiting parent homes and setting up neighborhood pop-up sites. The press conference was organized by the Every School Day Counts Detroit, a group that has been working for years to improve attendance in the city.

The campaign is targeting students who have yet to inform their schools whether they’ll be taking in-person or online classes, and students haven’t yet enrolled. If parents don’t enroll their children, it’s difficult for schools to plan teaching assignments and class schedules, and parents will lack the information they need to get their children off to a strong start.

Students who are chronically absent, meaning they miss 18 or more instructional days each year, could struggle more academically. Those students also are more likely to drop out of school. 

Detroit has one of the worst rates of chronic absenteeism compared to other U.S. metropolitan areas. In the 2018-2019 academic year, 70% of the students in the Detroit district were chronically absent. The rate improved to 63% in 2019, after the district launched several initiatives, including putting an attendance agent in every school. Chronic absenteeism is also a problem for some of the city’s charter schools.

“Our goal is to put our students in the best position academically and far into their future,” said Christine Bell, the executive director of the Urban Neighborhood Initiatives. “We must create a school-going culture to every segment in the community.” 

“We need to keep the communication going to have that continued, sustained enrollment,” said Rajeshri Gandhi Bhatia, who works for Grand Valley State University’s charter school office. The university authorizes about 50 charter schools in Detroit. Bhatia said her office partnered with early child care providers to give parents enrollment information. 

Maria Salinas, the executive director of Congress of Communities, a neighborhood organization based in Southwest Detroit, said parents are helping set up pop-up enrollment sites outside of local markets and distributing enrollment pamphlets. 

“We’re concerned about the minds and hearts of our youth,” Salinas said.

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Some parents may still be unsure whether to send their children back to school buildings or have their children learn remotely. The Detroit district is hosting training sessions for those who need additional support. Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent of family and community engagement for the district, said families should try to ease their anxieties about these first few weeks of school. 

“We ask and encourage parents to give themselves grace,” she said.

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