Podcast Transcript: The Misconceptions of the “Missing Students”

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Dr. Blaine: It’s not like we were sitting around waiting. I already had these charts and graphs. I already had my list of things we’d done and the dollar amounts attached to them. We had spent a ton of time, money, and resources. Never mind the fact that this has been just, quite honestly, a nightmare for every superintendent because this has just been difficult. People don’t agree whether kids should be in school or not. Then some of that has gone by the wayside as people have seen us do it successfully. I could not believe that anybody would think that we’re sitting around not doing anything.

I was offended, and I don’t get offended easily, really. I let most things roll off my back, but when you are as tired as I would imagine all school superintendents are to have somebody imply that you just are not going to do your job unless somebody holds a carrot over your head or beat you over the head with a stick, that’s a problem. To me, that questions my integrity. You’re questioning my integrity as an educator, that I’m not going to do the right thing unless somebody follows me around and tells me I have to. Because, when they started saying that we’d already done it. I already had proof.

Tessa: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Tessa Benavides, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. In this episode, we will take on the allegations some are making that districts haven’t been doing enough to find their students throughout the pandemic. As you heard at the top of the episode, Dr. Jennifer Blaine, Superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, says these allegations are something that educators take very seriously and very, very personally.

Dr. Blaine: We weren’t looking for kids because we thought any of that was going to be tied to hold harmless; that never entered our minds. We started looking for kids day one. I know every other superintendent did, too. We were looking for them, not because we were like, “If we don’t find them, we’re not going to get money,” because we didn’t even know that was a rule of the game. We were looking for them because we love them, and we care about them, and we care about their academic, social, and emotional well-being and their physical well-being. Where are they? Are they eating? Who are they with? What has happened to them? That’s why we were looking for kids.

The fact that they then said they were going to tie it to money, I think that’s really one of the reasons why it felt offensive. That’s the only word I can think of. I couldn’t believe somebody would say that. I really was taken aback because I didn’t realize that they thought that about school superintendents. And, I’m new to this. This is only my second year, so maybe that’s a very naive statement, but I wasn’t aware.

Tessa: Dr. Grenita Lathan, Houston ISD, Interim Superintendent echoes Dr. Blaine. She disagrees with the notion that there are a lot of lazy parents or teenagers out there who won’t get online and that districts needed to be threatened with a loss of funding to do their best to reach them. Instead, she is reminded that Texan families have been through a lot.

Dr. Liethen: It’s not that people are lazy or not that they don’t want to do, they just have so many things that they’re struggling with right now. I think we forget that people were struggling prior to the pandemic. Prior to March of 2020– Let’s go back to 2017, we had Harvey. Between 2017 and 2020, there were still some other weather-related events. Some people were trying to continue to rebound, and then what happened? Last week, we were hit with another major issue. I really don’t think it’s for lack of caring or not wanting to do, it’s just people are struggling with their own issues in their own personal lives.

Life has happened to all of us, and I think people forget because things are good for a lot of people, that there are things that– parents having still to work two and three jobs. We have had parents that have lost jobs, and so they’ve had to start a new job, which means hours have possibly changed. Some of our students are still experiencing homelessness, and so, they’re living from one place to the next from day to day. They don’t know where their meals are coming from or housing needs are going to be met, and so sometimes that poses a problem.

We have a number of our high school students that are actually supporting their families, and so they are actually going to work also. And so, it is a delicate balance of trying to make sure that they are getting online and that they’re learning, but that also we are meeting their needs.

Dr. Blaine: I know part of the thing we want to talk about is the number of kids that we’ve been able to locate. So, we’re down about 5%. It’s pretty much what I think everybody’s down, maybe 5.5%. It’s about 2,400 kids. When they talk about locating kids, we’ve actually located and connected and talked to and found 96% of our kids. 96% of that 2,400 kids, we talked to.

We have it broken down by the number of kids we contacted that are now homeschooling, the number that went out of the country, the number that went to other Texas school districts, the number that went out of state, private school–and, we actually recovered 284 kids by making those phone calls, going door to door and knocking. I could list you a million things we did, but we actually got 284 of those kids back in the system.

Dr. Blaine: First of all, I’ll say that we had district-level things we were doing and then we had campus-level actions. Then, we also have partnerships going on. Some of the things we were doing were new. They’re things we’ve not done before, and so, I would say that that’s a good thing. We learned, maybe some new and different processes, put some new and different processes in place that we maybe haven’t had to have before because we’ve never been missing this many kids. So, I would say the positive or the silver lining is that you always learn something from what you go through. And, as a result of really having to think differently, where or how are we going to find these kids, we’ve come up with some new and better processes.

Tessa: Spring Branch ISD is not alone in improving their processes to help them stay more closely connected to their hardest-to-reach students throughout the pandemic. In Fort Worth ISD, READ Fort Worth, a collective impact organization, has been mobilizing the village that exists in Fort Worth to support students and families. Here’s Satoya Williams, External Relations Manager of READ Fort Worth, to explain how they went straight to students’ front porches

Satoya: Do they need actual books? Do they need access to internet? What is it that we can help with, and how can we galvanize our community partners in this work? And so, as we shifted to that, our mayor has a term in which he calls “Fort Worth community of front porches.”

We built upon that name, and we launched this effort to go and meet families and have conversations with them to see what is it that they need and how can we as a community wrap our arms around them during this time.

Tessa: Terri Walker-Burston was one of the volunteers for the first round of front porch visits. Teri lives in the neighborhood where she teaches.

Terri: We always focus on building relationships with the student, and we do a great job of that. This has allowed us to build a relationship with the student and the family. I cannot tell you, after contacting all of my students, I would give my number, I have a meeting space where they could send me a text, and then we’d jump on a meeting space right away if needed. I would have parents call me. I don’t teach any of the core subjects, so they would call me and say, “Well, how are they doing the science?” [laughs] I’m like, “Well, let’s find out.”

Before, I didn’t have that. I would not have that. It was always maybe talking about discipline, how they’re acting in class, a little bit on the work, but it was just about general things. Sometimes, I would have students to call me and just say, “Well, Miss Walker-Burston, how are you doing? My mom said, “hi,” or something like that. I didn’t have that before.

Tessa: In Hutto ISD, located north of Austin, District officials were lucky to have already hired two full-time parent support specialists who have been instrumental in helping the district communicate with families during times of crisis. This is Dr. Celina Estrada Thomas, Hutto ISD superintendent.

Celina: We could have a whole discussion about how Mr. DeLeon and Mrs. Albot have stepped in to support our parents with virtual learning, especially our Spanish-speaking parents who were not only having to navigate just this whole virtual learning environment but the technology associated with that.

I can’t tell you how many times, even now, I pass by Joe’s office, and he is deep– he’s one-on-one deep in conversation with a parent trying to navigate all of the resources that our kids are using for virtual learning.

Tessa: In this particular call, Joe is following up with a parent whose son just returned to face-to-face learning. He tells the father how thrilled Hutto ISD is to have his son back at school.

As the call continues, Joe reassures the father about all of the precautions his son’s school has in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Tessa: Before hanging up, Joe checks on the entire family.

Tessa: He asks how the family fared through the recent winter storm. They lost power, but all in all, the father reports they made it through okay. Joe reminds him to call if he ever needs anything.

Tessa: For Joe, the work of connecting with missing students and their families hits close to his own home.

Joe: One of the things that every time I saw a student name, I kept thinking, “You know, that could have easily been me back in the day when I was around that age.”

As I shared, mom had a second-grade education, dad dropped out in the seventh, you know, and there was only one car in the family and that would have that. I would have easily just fell between the cracks, you know, and have gotten lost. So, I just took it into myself. I’m like, “I’m going to find all 300 of these and see what’s going on with them.”

Then, I just went down the list, and then I’m happy to say that I was able to find all 300 of them, you know. But, it would just so good. Some of them weren’t even in the state because when the pandemic hit, they left because they had elderly parents somewhere else. So, they wanted to be there to take care of them. Then when we find them, they’re like, “My parents don’t have internet or anything.” I send them a link to either some way-reduced type of internet service or some free service that they can get in order for the child to log on. Then, when they get back here, I’d go take them a laptop, and then come to find out that they don’t have no computers at their house.

Joe: I’ve probably done more home visits within this last year or during the COVID time than I’ve done all the other years put together. You know, we’re not that old parent and family engagement, and the district’s not that old. I always tell people, “We came in right at the perfect time, where we were definitely going to be needed.”

I’m working with a family right now to– we make several home visits to their home because it always would seem to be, I don’t want to say for the bad reason, but that last home visit, I noticed that there was a lot of bees coming out from the front of the house. I talked to grandma, and she’s like, “We’ve had to move through the back room of the house because there’s been bees there for over a year.”

Then I say, “I bet that affects your grandkids in doing their school.” She’s like, “Oh yes, it does, because many times, they’re just trying to run away from the bees.” So, I’m like, “Okay, there’s a bee problem there.” I’ve heard of beekeepers. I don’t know any, but I got on the internet, called some friends, I found a beekeeper who right now, as we speak, is removing those bees from that house.

Celina: I love that. I didn’t know that story, Joe. I think the most important part about this work is that the motivation behind it is not about money. Money, of course, is vital to us being able to sustain our efforts, but I think it’s important for our legislators to know that looking for kids is part of our DNA, not just in Hutto, but all of our colleagues across the state. You’re not going to find a superintendent or a school district in this state who has not beaten the bushes to look for their kids. That’s just what we do. It’s not about business as usual or shrugging off the fact, “Oh, it’s COVID. Kids aren’t going to show up. They’re just going to wait it out.” Yes, some families have chosen to do that, but you should have a running record of who has done that. For the most part, looking for our kids is part of what we do in Texas.

COVID or not, losing funds or not, that’s just part of what we’re going to do.

Tessa: Texas educators don’t need a funding incentive to find their students. That’s their job, and beyond that, it is who they are, what’s in them. They want every student to be found so teachers can teach and students can learn. Schools want to do everything possible to educate every student in their community. They didn’t know the pandemic was coming. They didn’t expect a winter storm could impact us the way it did. But yet, they are still going above and beyond to help us through and make sure every student’s needs are met.

I’m Tessa Benavides, and this is Intersect Ed.

Today’s episode was narrated by me, Tessa Benavides, co-written by myself and Laura Mellett. Our Sound Engineer and Editor is Brian Diggs, and Executive Producer is Laura Mellett.

Thank you for listening to IntersectEd. If you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved, head over to RaiseYourHandTexas.org.


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