school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by Code.org, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from Code.org to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.

Deadlines

Chicago school applications are due midnight Friday. Here’s your last-minute cheat sheet.

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
At a fall open house, students at Benito Juarez Community Academy greeted visitors. As more students choose schools outside their neighborhood, schools have to work harder to impress families.

Families have until 11:59 pm Friday to apply to schools outside of their neighborhood through Chicago’s online portal, GoCPS.

On Thursday afternoon, wait times stretched nearly 10 minutes for callers to the Office of Access and Enrollment, which serves as a help-desk for GoCPS.

Families interested in options beyond their assigned neighborhood school must apply to attend magnet schools that draw students based on lottery, selective enrollment programs that require tests, and specialized programs such as dual-language or International Baccalaureate.

The application process is particularly fraught for students entering high school. Eighth-graders can choose from among 250 programs in nearly 150 high schools. Demand varies widely, with some schools receiving thousands of applications beyond what they can accommodate and others receiving too few.

While choosing a high school is serious business for students, their collective choices can become a do-or-die point for schools competing for a shrinking pool of students. The dozens of Chicago high schools labeled as under-enrolled risk falling into an unforgiving downward cycle. Schools losing enrollment also lose district revenue, which is doled out per student, and then they find it even more difficult to offer popular programs to appeal to applicants.  

Here’s some of our other coverage on the universal application system, which is now in its second year:

  • To see how many students applied to each high school last fall and compare it to the number of offers made this spring, click here.
  • To read how the race to impress students is leading high schools to behave more like small colleges, with swag bags, mariachi bands, and flashy brochures, click here.
  • To find our coverage of the first in-depth research report that evaluated the GoCPS system, click here. The system is mostly working as intended, according to an August report released by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The majority of high school students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools.
  • To follow-along in the discussion about high-quality neighborhood options, read this story about a recent meeting at Kelly High School, which we covered here.
  • To learn more about a controversial school inventory report made public in August that shows that fewer than half of Chicago students attend their designated neighborhood school, click here.
  • To look up the latest round of SAT scores by school, click here. To find our database of high school graduation rates, click here.