OPINION: Are all students accounted for? Probably not

Truancy Intervention Project Georgia fears students are unaccounted for during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of TIP)
Truancy Intervention Project Georgia fears students are unaccounted for during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of TIP)

Credit: Courtesy of TIP

Credit: Courtesy of TIP

COVID-19 has not only laid bare the lack of equal educational opportunity for minority and low-income students, but it also has deepened it.

Black students, according to a national study, could fall behind academically by 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and students living in poverty by more than a year.

The numbers are startling for sure, but they do not surprise the people who run the Truancy Intervention Project, a nonprofit that works to reduce absenteeism in Atlanta and Fulton County schools. For the past 30 years, they’ve been looking at the numbers, felt the heartbeat of as many as 11,000 kids who could’ve been lost to Georgia classrooms forever.

And so when the coronavirus pandemic hit school districts last year and educators were forced to offer alternative forms of instruction to help keep students and staff safe, Jessica Pennington and Terry Walsh braced themselves for what would come next.

Walsh is TIP’s chair emeritus. Pennington is the executive director.

Jessica Pennington is executive director of the nonprofit Truancy Intervention Project Georgia. (Courtesy of TIP)
Jessica Pennington is executive director of the nonprofit Truancy Intervention Project Georgia. (Courtesy of TIP)

Credit: Courtesy of TIP

Credit: Courtesy of TIP

They knew from the very beginning that parents would be faced with troubling decisions, including whether or not to enroll a student in school at all.

In a normal year, TIP volunteers see more than 300 children on the brink of dropping out of school. About two-thirds of those kids are referred by school officials while the other one-third come to them via the juvenile court, which has been shuttered since the coronavirus pandemic hit back in March.

Since COVID, the numbers have decreased to just 200.

“That’s extremely concerning,” Pennington said. “We’re working very hard to reach out to kids and provide services in the community.”

ExploreWhat hurting teens in school may need most: A listener who cares

In addition to creating an online platform to deliver support group sessions to students, Pennington said her team has set up a text messaging system to provide immediate information regarding available resources. It’s been very successful. In one outreach effort, for instance, they sent out a text alert that gift cards donated by the law firm of King & Spalding were available and quickly distributed over $20,000 in grocery store cards to families in urgent need.

Makes you wonder how many more kids are struggling and missing from school rolls. Who’s looking out for them?

We’ve known for some time that missing more than 10% of school days in a year is an early sign students’ grades will suffer or they might drop out. For years, in fact, their attendance was either rewarded or punished.

TIP, fortunately, has worked to change that so that kids are referred directly from schools because as Walsh put it, “the juvenile court should have been the last resort when it was the only resort.”

And so instead of throwing kids away, TIP volunteers work to restore them.

They discovered, for instance, that more than 40% of referrals to the program had special needs and that chronic absenteeism was merely a symptom of issues beyond their control, including poverty, health challenges, community violence, and family circumstances — all the things that make it difficult for them to take advantage of the opportunity to learn at school.

As in so many instances, the pandemic exposed the harsh reality that many students and families live paycheck to paycheck, with limited access to nutritious food, stable housing and health care.

Terry Walsh is chairman emeritus of the nonprofit Truancy Intervention Project Georgia. (Courtesy of TIP)
Terry Walsh is chairman emeritus of the nonprofit Truancy Intervention Project Georgia. (Courtesy of TIP)

Credit: Photo courtesy of TIP

Credit: Photo courtesy of TIP

Add to that distance learning and it gets even worse. Many families either don’t own a computer or lack quality internet service so children can benefit from virtual learning.

While TIP’s mission to get kids back in school hasn’t changed, COVID, Pennington and Walsh agreed, has made that job a whole lot tougher and more expensive.

ExploreIn fighting ‘summer slide,’ Horizons Atlanta giving kids better future

“We didn’t used to have to buy devices to help kids who don’t have computer access at home and the things they need to connect with distance learning,” Walsh said.

They also didn’t have to worry about how they would reach children and their parents. They simply met them at school or some neutral place and made a game plan to get them back in school.

Because of COVID, they can’t do that anymore, making it nearly impossible to establish a rapport with students, especially when a parent can’t keep internet access or the only device is a cellphone.

TIP children are among the most vulnerable in our community. Some are abused. Others have special needs. Most of them live in single-parent homes, and most caregivers were, themselves, school failures. Before entering the program, all are in violation of Georgia’s compulsory education statute, which means they have at least 10 unexcused absences.

Why should you care?

“Children who drop out of school end up in places detrimental to themselves and to our community,” Walsh said. “They achieve far less than children who remain in school and pass.”

Last year, for instance, he said, 75% of all crimes committed in the U.S. were committed by dropouts. Girls who drop out are 6 ½ times more likely to become pregnant. Not every dropout becomes a hardened criminal, but virtually every hardened criminal was a dropout.

Nearly 90% of TIP children, who range in age from 5 to 16, get back in school and succeed.

Both Pennington and Walsh credit this success to the large pool of attorneys and social workers who sign on each year to help.

“What a lot of these kids need is an advocate, someone on their side who can look out for them, make sure they get tested, an appointment with a counselor or a ride to an athletic event because their parent has to work,” Pennington said. “That’s what our volunteers do.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News