We believe education is made stronger by working together. To help keep district leaders connected, we started the EveryDay Q&A as a way to share thinking from across the country. Jennifer Kretschman, MTSS Director at Sacramento City Unified School District, provides a look at how SUSD plans to rebuild positive attendance habits and engage students and families to overcome learning loss.
In Spring 2020, we shut our doors for over four weeks. We were unable to reach a Distance Learning agreement with our teachers, making it difficult to plan, communicate, and conduct outreach with our students and families. When we returned to distance learning on April 13, there were over 1,600 students that we deemed unreachable: students that we’d had zero contact with since March 13 or that had never logged on to distance learning classes. The student attendance office quickly became the student attendance and engagement office. We focused our efforts on locating and connecting those students while at the same time monitoring the engagement and wellbeing of the remaining 40,000 students through daily engagement surveys/needs assessments.
We collaborated with external partners and internal departments. EveryDay Labs, who normally supported our absence reports and attendance nudge programs, assisted with the unreachable and significantly disengaged students by mailing and texting contact information surveys to thousands of families whom we could not reach by normal means. We worked with the Family and Community Empowerment Team, school sites, youth development and county and community partners conducting extreme outreach including phone banking, essential home check ins and social media campaigns. When we located families, we had a script that walked staff through a high-level needs assessment with contact information verification, and which ensured that students had everything they needed to connect to school when we left. We worked with our Communications team to create a one-stop website to help families navigate this new distance learning world, access resources, and assist them with everything including medical insurance, emotional and mental wellness needs, financial assistance, and local food banks. By the start of the new school year in August, we had located all but nine of those 1,600 unreachable students. It was truly a collaborative, multi-department and all-stakeholder effort that was by far our most critical accomplishment.
We are using data to further substantiate that there are even greater disparities between our haves and have nots in the distance learning environment. For many of our students, school is their safe haven, community, and support. When schools shut down, our families lost access to some of their most critical supports. In planning for reopening and then reimagining the future of public education, we must truly focus on providing a means to maintaining the needed supports to all of our families. At the same time, we need to provide more equitable access to high-quality instruction that meets the needs of at least 80% of our students, and then have whatever resources and interventions are needed to serve and educate the students who need more support at tiers II and III. When we return in person, the gap that was prevalent before will be a gaping wound. Students who struggled before will be even further behind, and we must recognize and address it immediately. We opened Learning Hubs run by our CBOs and prioritized student groups who were disproportionately identified on our Early Warning System: Homeless and Foster youth, students with disabilities, and African American and SED students.
The Public Education system is a long-standing entity with good intentions, but wrought with systemic racism and biases. Governmental policies designed to benefit the affluent and “inadvertently” harm low income families—that are primarily black and brown—create barriers, primary contributing factors that make it difficult for children to get to school, and lead to chronic absenteeism. Systemic inequities that limit access to critical services such as transportation, stable, safe housing and access to healthcare, are at the core of why BIPOC students are disproportionately represented in chronic absenteeism data.
We believe that among the largest barriers to attendance are the implicit biases and microaggressions that many students experience in schools. These barriers include school cultures that do not acknowledge and value the diverse cultural, racial, and linguistic voices of our students, which can lead students to feel like they’re neither seen nor valued as members of their school community.
To increase student engagement and attendance, our experiences have shown that schools should focus on building equitable learning environments for all students, and that strategies must be responsive to local context. Children in low-income families—often children of color—lack many of the resources that their higher income and white peers have, which puts them at a disadvantage before they even enter their classrooms. Some opportunity gaps can be addressed by strengthened education policies.