Special Report
Student Achievement

Inside the Effort to Find and Help Disengaged Youth

By Christina A. Samuels — January 06, 2021 7 min read
Kahlil Kuykendall, program manager with Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, stands for a portrait at the Anacostia Community Museum, in Washington D.C., on Dec. 8, 2020.
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This time last year, Kahlil Kuykendall, a youth development consultant for an organization supporting teenage girls, would spend school lunches bonding with students in three Washington, D.C., middle schools. She would help the 30 or so girls develop stronger goal-setting skills, learn more about college and careers, and navigate the storms of adolescence.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which closed school buildings and sent the economy into a tailspin. An unknown number of children and youth—as many as 3 million, by one estimate—have not had a meaningful connection to their schools since in-person learning was disrupted in March. Those adults, such as Kuykendall, who work closest with these students and their families, are now using every tool they have to keep these vulnerable youth connected to their education.

Kuykendall, who works for Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, has pared her caseload down to 18 girls, all African-American and from low-income families, at one middle school. In partnership with the school, she’s now their “advisory” teacher, and checks in every day. But many of the girls in the group can’t access their classroom lessons because of their glitchy computers and sporadic internet service. Three have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. One 13-year-old lost her mother, who was only 27, to the virus.

“I think the further they get away, the more disengaged they become. I’m seeing a decline in terms of academic self-esteem and I’m just trying to find ways to encourage them,” said Kuykendall, who has hosted online pizza parties and other social events for the girls. Crittenton Services of Greater Washington is one of the many nonprofit organizations that are helping students across the country weather a time of loneliness, disconnection, and loss.

“One of the mantras I say with my girls is, ‘I want for my sister what I want for myself,’ ” Kuykendall said. “That keeps us grounded.”

When in-person learning abruptly ended last spring, schools and community groups sprang into action, scrambling to offer wireless internet access, computers, and food. For many families, those measures were enough to ensure a level of economic and academic stability.

But for some children, they weren’t enough. Parents may have lost jobs and housing. Older children may have been drafted into working or caring for younger siblings, leaving them a step away from dropping out of school entirely. This has led to many students disappearing from school rosters altogether.

How Many Children Are Missing?

It can be difficult to track precisely how many students have disengaged from school on a national level, because no one organization is in charge of tracking that data.

Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington-based organization that conducts policy analysis, took a stab at trying to quantify how many children and youth may be, what it calls, “missing at the margins.”

Its analysts focused on five groups of students particularly at risk of missing education in a remote environment: those belonging to migrant families or experiencing homelessness, children in the foster care system, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. They then looked at reports from a sample of districts on how many of those students have not logged on for classes. Based on that analysis, the organization says that 10 percent to 25 percent of students in those groups—accounting for 1 to 3 million children and youth—may have had minimal to no educational access since March of last year.

“The first thing we need to know is who is missing from school, and why,” said Hailly T.N. Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether and a co-author of the analysis. “School districts and cities are going to have to go in search of those answers before they start designing solutions.”

Children and youth experiencing homelessness represent a particularly vulnerable population, said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection in Washington, D.C, an organization that supports homeless families and youth and the school personnel who work with them.

Worryingly, even though the unemployment rate is up, SchoolHouse Connection estimates that 400,000 fewer children and youth were identified as homeless in the fall of 2020, compared to the same time a year earlier. That drop likely represents families who would have been identified in normal times but have fallen off the radar screen of school districts because teachers and administrators aren’t seeing the children every day and may not be able to spot warning signs.

The housing crisis has forced some families into appalling conditions that can make school an afterthought. In addition, embarrassment or fear of having children taken by social services keeps many families from coming forward.

Lisa Mentesana, the program specialist overseeing homeless and foster care youth for the Beaverton district in Oregon, said she works with a mother who has two children and pays $600 a month to live in a backyard shed. A single extension cord powers a lamp, slow cooker and a heater. Water comes from a garden hose. The family uses a bucket as a toilet.

“That’s in Nike’s backyard. In your average American neighborhood and home,” Mentesana said, referring to the athletic apparel giant whose headquarters are nearby. “No one living in situations like that is willing to tell anyone about it.”

Ayoka, whose family works with Crittendon and Kahlil Kuykendall, stands for a portrait at the Anacostia Community Museum, in Washington D.C., on Dec. 8, 2020.

In the face of such turmoil, school staff and community organizations want families to see them as a source of stability. Kuykendall’s calm and steady presence—in addition to working with Crittenton, she is a doula and a yoga teacher—has been very important to Trenita Collins Miller-Aganyemi and her 14-year-old daughter, Ayoka Miller-Aganyemi.

Ayoka, an 8th grader in the District of Columbia school system, said she’s had to deal with computer problems and problems with the internet, particularly when the weather is bad.

“It’s stressful. I have to worry about my other siblings, even my mom. It’s a struggle,” she said. But Crittenton “has been helping me. I can express myself with them and they can help me, and I can help them,” she said.

The emotional support has been a huge help, her mother said. “If it wasn’t for Crittenton there’s no telling if we’d be here today.”

Maintaining Connections

YouthBuild USA, which works with 16- to 24-year-olds who have dropped out of high school, is strengthening its partnership with Penn Foster, which offers high school diploma and certificate programs through distance learning. As the pandemic wears on, older students may be looking for the job and academic training YouthBuild offers, said Michael Brotchner, the organization’s chief strategy officer. It’s a recognition that some students may not return to traditional public school, but they can still achieve their academic goals.

In Beaverton, Mentesana said that a new community resource center serving her district is coming in 2021. That will serve as a one-stop shop to support families and students, who often have a variety of social and academic needs.

“We’re really excited about that and we hope that it will help to expand services, prevent displacement, and just help us navigate through this period of time,” she said.

Christy McCoy, a school social worker for the St. Paul, Minn., district, said she has been able to maintain contact with students through online, affinity-based support groups, such as those focused on Latino or African-American students. Now that districts have more access to personal protective equipment to avoid contracting the virus, she’s also added in home visits.

Another important piece of her job is referring children and families to mental health services.

“Kids who might have had the resilience early on are getting worn down,” McCoy said. “And those kids who were struggling with mental health issues at the start of the pandemic, that has just intensified.”

She’s also found that texting can be a more effective mode of communication with students than phone calls. “I have a significant group of students, who, every morning, I send them a text: ‘This is your friendly reminder of what your plan is for today.’ We’ve seen more engagement and they’re showing up for their synchronous classes,” McCoy said.

For these students facing the deepest challenges, entire communities across the nation are going to have to come together to help them get through this trauma, said Siobhan Davenport, the executive director of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington.

“We just have not seen this level of hardship with our families. But we’re here for (them),” she said. “I feel like our foot is on the gas, and we can’t take it off.”

Finding and Helping Vulnerable Youth

The children and youth who have stopped attending school regularly since March were often facing challenges before the coronavirus pandemic. SchoolHouse Connection, which advocates for homeless youth, has compiled tips for helping hard-to-reach students.

Here are some interventions schools can consider:

  • Visit local motels and campgrounds where families experiencing homelessness sometimes stay, placing flyers on vehicle windows or under doors.
  • Create user-friendly websites and Facebook pages with clear information about community resources, food distribution, and distance learning.
  • Set up a phone hotline for assistance with any needs.
  • When delivering food or learning packets, ask about other needs, encourage families and students to keep in touch, and let them know they are missed.
  • Provide parents and youth with the technology they need to stay in touch, such as pre-paid cell phones.
  • Use all available means of communication to reach families and students, such as email, phone, texting, regular mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and “curbside” home visits.
  • When families and students don’t respond, don’t give up—reach out to emergency contacts and other students to help.
  • Reach out to unaccompanied youth directly, because most unaccompanied youth have no contact with parents or guardians.
  • Once you connect with a parent or youth, stay in touch on a regular schedule using “check-in” forms to guide your conversations.

Source: SchoolHouse Connection

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as Inside the Effort to Find and Help Disengaged Youth


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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