On a Tuesday morning, LaTosha Walker drove along from tree-lined streets with mansions to trailer parks, from apartment complexes to single-family homes, on a mission to reach 20 or so students who’ve gone missing from school.
This is how Walker, an enrollment coach for Lowcountry Acceleration Academy, spends three days a week: hitting the road to offer students who have dropped out of school a second chance at graduation through the academy, which caters to students whose lives don’t allow them to put school first.
“A lot of times, you have to meet the kids where they are, and they’re at the house,” she said. “Sometimes they need a gentle nudge to encourage them to get back on track.”
That Tuesday, clad in a Lowcountry Acceleration Academy shirt with a clipboard in hand, Walker knocked on eight doors in the suburban towns of North Charleston and Hanahan. Only one person answered.
That door was opened by a school-age boy. “Is he still currently in school?” Walker called out, seeing the mother in the background.. The mom said she had tried to get her son enrolled in another alternative school, but had not heard back. Walker assured her that Lowcountry Acceleration Academy would get him started on his application that same day.
“Then you can start school as soon as possible,” she said as she handed the mom a flyer about the school’s offerings.
“I feel a good possibility that she will respond because she actually wants her child in school,” Walker said as she drove away.
‘I can knock on 18 doors and nobody answers.’
Every week, Walker gets a list from her supervisor at Lowcountry, which is technically a public charter high school, of students who have dropped out of or aren’t attending their public school in one of three partner districts: Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester. She calls, emails, and texts the families’ last known numbers before driving out to find them in person.
Every day is a new challenge for Walker, who moved to the Charleston area a year ago. Some days, she makes more stops on a single street than a mail delivery person. Other days, she’s driving far out of town to rural South Carolina. “No Trespassing” signs hang on some homes, where she is not authorized to knock ; other times, people appear to be at home but choose to not answer.
“I can knock on 18 doors and nobody answers. The success rate is kind of iffy, just depends on their timing,” she said. “Because this is a population of students who kind of have dismissed school.”
That Tuesday, Walker drove into an affluent neighborhood in Hanahan to find a student on her list. The garage door adjoining the home was open and a car was parked in the driveway. Walker stood in front of the doorbell camera with her clipboard, waiting for an answer.
It was not Walker’s first time in this neighborhood. When she had visited before, some residents came out and started questioning her about why she was there, she said. On Tuesday, Walker, a Black woman, guessed the family she was looking to speak to was at home, but wouldn’topen the door to her.
“There’s a lot of race tension. I didn’t feel welcome. But I mean, I still have to do it,” she said. “At the end of the day, the nature of my job is still to get the child an education.”
Sometimes, Walker feels unsafe because she’s entering a neighborhood with a large amount of crime. Last year, she drove up to a house she was supposed to be knocking on and witnessed a drug deal.
On Tuesday, just a few streets past the mansions, she drove into a trailer park with no clear exit. There were no numbers indicating which trailer she was looking for, and as soon as she drove in, she said she felt uneasy being there. In situations like these, Walker trusts her instincts and just keeps driving. She left, intending to come back with a team member to try again another day.
“It can be dangerous at times, in certain neighborhoods,” Walker said. “But it’s rewarding when you can actually see some of the kids that you’ve come to get registered finally graduate.”
Back at Lowcountry Acceleration Academy, Walker made a list of all the students she’d tried to visit, making sure to cite the reason she couldn’t reach them. She was surrounded by students, or as they’re called at her school, graduation candidates, or GCs, working on their laptops or with teachers one-on-one—a reminder of what’s possible when a connection to a student is successfully forged.
The main room scattered with desks and armchairs led into smaller meeting rooms, where some students preferred to sits as they did their schoolwork.
Life gets in the way
Many of the 250 students enrolled at Lowcountry have life commitments, such as jobs or having to take care of family members. Some also have behavioral or mental health challenges, such as anxiety, that stop them from succeeding in a traditional high school environment. Those students have the flexibility they need to finish their high school credits at Lowcountry.
They are only required to be in school 24 hours per week, a time commitment that can also be fulfilled virtually. Students still have attendance requirements, but the school works with them individually to figure out how each student can meet them.
“The pandemic has had such a negative impact on families, especially families who are already in persistent [financial] struggles, every member of the family who was old enough to work ended up with jobs. A majority of our GCs who are here with us are a part of their families’ income. They’re working,” said Jacinta Bryant, the academy director.
For those students, she said, “school is not at this time, very important.”
Despite the flexibility, the school keeps track of students who are not meeting its attendance requirements. Just as Walker does enrollment visits, other employees go on home visits looking for kids who have been missing from online classes or the building for a while. Janelle Reyes, a graduation candidate advocate, is one of the employees tasked with home visits.
On Tuesday, Reyes and Walker paired up for two visits to enrolled students whom the school hadn’t heard from in a while. The first one, Daquan Wallace, 18, was just pulling up to his grandmother’s house when Reyes walked up to his front door and asked him why he hadn’t logged on in almost two weeks.
Wallace hadn’t been in the school building since April, Reyes said. He worked two jobs to help his mom make payments on her house and was watching his grandmother’s house, because it had recently been broken into multiple times, he said. His life didn’t allow him to focus on school.
“I’ve just been working constantly, overnight. I’ve been at work 24 hours almost every other day,” he said.
Reyes asked if Wallace could move his shifts to get a free weekday, and asked him to log in on Zoom whenever he could.
“Sometimes, you just gotta work and unfortunately can’t put everything into school,” she said to Wallace. “But we’re close. It’s technically your senior year. So we’re trying to get to the finish line.”
At the next student’s house, Reyes took a completely different approach. With Wallace, she had been chatty, asking him to stop by, offering to talk to his manager about changing shifts, and getting him to commit to coming to school every Thursday before she left.
But when her second student answered the door, Reyes stood farther back, spoke softly and did not ask her to commit to any dates or times. This student was homebound, Reyes later explained, because of her mental health. But she hadn’t logged on since June, and wasn’t even sure she could keep up with the schoolwork.
“I do want to finish school, but I just feel like with everything that’s going on, I can’t right now,” the student told Reyes, her voice barely above a whisper.
Reyes told the student she’d check in again in a week, but left without asking her to log on or commit to a time or day to attend school.
“We remind them that we want them to succeed as much as they want themselves to succeed, and we remind them of their support system that they have here at the academy,” she said. “But in the end, it’s their decision. We only want what’s best for them.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘Graduation Counselors’ Go Door-to Door To Find Missing Students