At a Detroit school, two women become detectives when students stop showing up

This story is part of the series Moving Costs: How students changing schools disrupts Detroit classrooms, a joint project from Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine.

When children stop showing up at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School for an extended period of time, Sherry Taylor and Myrna Capela try their best to track them down.

One or two students leave Bethune every week, but Taylor, the school secretary, says only a handful — maybe 5 percent — notify the school of their plans to leave.

The rest have to be found.

Taylor and Capela, the attendance agent, spend hours on the phone and knocking on doors trying to account for students who have just up and left.

When a child first leaves, teachers typically mark a child absent for a few days before notifying the office that something beyond a routine stomach bug could be the culprit.

“After a week, the office will make a call,” Taylor said.

Sometimes a parent will answer and say the child is at a different school, she said, but that’s not always the case. “I can’t drop them until I verify that school has the child,” Taylor said. “We have to know where those students are so they don’t come up missing.”

When students leave Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School, school secretary Sherry Taylor, left, and attendance agent Myrna Capela are the ones who make sure they’re safe. (Erin Einhorn)

Sometimes the school discovers that family contact numbers are no longer working. Sometimes parents don’t answer their phones.

Some students eventually return to school. “They’ll pop up and we say, ‘Where you been?’” Taylor said. “They say they went to another school.”  

[ Read more: Detroit makes it easy to switch schools. So parents do. Frequently. ]

If the students who leave head to another district school, they will turn up in the district’s computer system and it will be obvious where they’ve gone. But if a family leaves town or transfers to a charter school, staff members at Bethune have to find them.

Capela visits family homes and talks to neighbors.

“Most of the time, somebody knows,” she said. “They say, ‘Oh, I saw them moving out.’”

But there are cases when it’s not clear. That’s when concern turns to worry.

“It bothers me a lot,” Capela said. “It bothers me a great deal.”

When the city reacted in horror three years ago to the news that two children had been found murdered, hidden in their mother’s freezer, many Detroiters asked how two children could be missing from school for so long without anyone noticing.

But in a city in which schools are run by dozens of different entities that don’t share information, educators say they never know if children could be in grave danger.

In recent years, a school advocacy organization raised $700,000 and built a common enrollment system that would have kept track of where Detroit students are enrolled. But the system, which would have given parents a single application to use for every school in the city, was controversial. Detroit’s main district, then going through a leadership transition, declined to participate as some worried that a common application would give charter schools an advantage in the city’s intensely competitive school landscape. Some charter leaders worried that the system was rigged to promote the district. In the end, so few schools participated that the effort was shelved.

Another possible solution is a data system now being built by the state of Michigan. Within the next few years, that system will let schools quickly access the transcripts and records of students transferring in.

[ Read more: 5 ways to stop students from changing schools — or at least reduce the impact ]

Eventually, said Tom Johnson, a data manager who has been working with the Michigan Department of Education on the new system, it could also allow a child’s former school to see where he or she has enrolled.

“That’s something we could explore,” Johnson said. “A system that would alert a prior district when a student enrolls in a new one … We’ll have some conversations about the value of that.”

But for now, when children leave Bethune, it’s up to Capela and Taylor to find them and make sure they’re safe.

“We do the best we can,” Taylor said. “But I worry. If I haven’t seen this kid in a while, where are they?”