Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a community call to action Tuesday morning, asking all New Orleanians to help students "wake up and learn" in a bid to tackle the city's high rate of absenteeism.
Since the beginning of the school year, New Orleans Public Schools has had an average attendance rate of 83.5 percent. On any given day more than 7,000 students are missing school.
Cantrell called on New Orleanians to make sure children are regularly attending class either in-person or online. The message was directed not just at parents, but all community members.
“We’ve often heard the slogan that it takes a village to raise a child,” Cantrell said. “We’re calling on all of our parents as well as all of our community leaders to pay attention and ensure that our children come first, that our children are in school every single day.”
While many elementary and middle schools resume face-to-face instruction this week, high schools will remain largely virtual through Mardi Gras. High schools are allowed to serve high-risk students in-person, including those who are chronically absent.
The issue of student absenteeism in New Orleans predates the pandemic. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said it's an issue he’s wrestled with throughout his 25 years as an educator. Last year, the district’s average attendance rate was 90 percent.
“We know it’s poverty, we know it’s unemployment, violence, homlessness and even literacy,” Lewis said. “All of these things … were here before the pandemic, but I know they are certainly compounded by COVID-19.”
Lewis said many of the families currently struggling with attendance were struggling before COVID-19. The demands of virtual learning have led some students already suffering from chronic absenteeism to miss even more classes.
While the district and individual schools have provided students with internet-enabled devices, and in some cases a wireless connection, some families are still plagued with technological issues.
Over the course of the year the district and individual schools have pivoted between online and in-person learning in response to the city’s health data. For families and students, the experience has been both exhausting and stressful, creating a constant sense of uncertainty and preventing long-term planning.
Justin Ross, principal at The NET Charter High School in Central City, said many parents may not realize just how badly their child is struggling.
“The reality is a lot of our kids are not getting up and going to school because they are suffering from depression,” Ross said.
Many students are not earning the credits they need to progress to the next grade or graduate, Ross said, not because they lack intelligence or tenacity, but because they are experiencing an acute level of distress.
“All you have to do is open up your mouth and begin to encourage a kid that they can recover from this crazy time,” Ross said. “Maybe they haven’t been successful [this year], but you need to tell your children it's not too late.”
Lewis said individual schools and the district’s central office have committed significant resources to connect with families that are struggling. They’re making phone calls, writing personal letters and conducting home visits.
Since September, the district has visited approximately 680 homes, according to Lewis. While it's up to individual schools to respond to initial attendance concerns, they can refer challenging cases to the district.
In the fall, when classes were all online, the district instituted a rapid response program and arranged for chronically absent students to receive in-person support while completing online lessons. Some schools got permission to open their buildings early to serve as learning hubs.
On Tuesday, Lewis said the longer students stay disengaged, the more likely they are to drop out of school entirely.
In recent years, the district’s graduation rate has improved, but the number of young adults and teenagers who are considered “disengaged” is still high.
According to recent data, 15.5 percent of New Orleanians ages 16 to 24 are neither in school nor working. That’s down from 18.2 percent in 2013, when the city had the third-highest rate of any metropolitan area.
New Orleans is still considerably above the national average for youth disconnection, which is 11.2 percent. Black youth are nearly twice as likely to be disconnected than white youth and young Black men are 1.5 times more likely to be disconnected than young Black women.
Felice Gaddis, a social worker at Langston Hughes Academy, said students often wake up late and let that define their whole day.
“That is something that I hear every single day, ‘I woke up too late.’ Don’t let that be the excuse,” Gaddis said. “Saying that you missed homeroom isn’t an excuse to not login at that point.”
Gaddis works for Communities in Schools of the Gulf South, a nonprofit organization that sends trained social workers to schools to assess community needs and offer support.
At Langston Hughes Academy, Gaddis said she follows up with every family after two or more consecutive absences and refers families to mental health agencies as needed. When no improvements to attendance have been made, Gaddis said she issues a municipal court summons.
With so many students learning from home, some on flexible schedules, the New Orleans Police Department announced in August that they would suspend truancy enforcement.
On Tuesday, Cantrell said reporting systems were still in place and that The Family Center of Hope was serving as a temporary truancy center. The facility is currently near capacity and the city is exploring ways to reopen its own truancy center at The Covenant House, according to Cantrell.
Cantrell said the city is aware of several cases in which student absenteeism has been linked to illegal employment. She reminded businesses to make sure they do not employ students during school hours.
“We will explore and investigate and make sure that businesses are held accountable as they should be,” Cantrell said. “We’re asking them to step up and ensure that our children have employment but make sure that they are showing up after school hours.”
Cantrell said she also plans to mobilize the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families and the city’s career center to respond to student absenteeism.