Tracking down students who have disappeared from class

john rambo

DETROIT — Principal Jacqueline Dungey was searching for one of her kindergartners. She’d called every number she had for his family. She’d sent urgent notes to his parents. She’d reached out to a social worker who’d worked with his family in the past. But more than a month after the […]

DETROIT — Principal Jacqueline Dungey was searching for one of her kindergartners.

She’d called every number she had for his family. She’d sent urgent notes to his parents. She’d reached out to a social worker who’d worked with his family in the past.

But more than a month after the coronavirus threat forced the New Paradigm Loving Academy in Detroit to move its classes online, the little boy, Legend, hadn’t been in touch with his teachers. His family had not shown up for the meals the school distributes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No one seemed to know where he was.

Dungey was determined to find him.

“I just wanted to make sure he was safe,” she said.

Legend was among about a dozen Loving students who went missing in the weeks after COVID-19 began battering this community. Panic, sickness and death sent many Detroiters into financial and emotional turmoil, scattering some families from their homes, just as one of the safest places in a child’s life — school — was abruptly forced to close.

That’s meant that educators like Dungey, who work in the hardest-hit parts of the country, have not only had to adapt to a radically new way of teaching. They’ve also had to become detectives.

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Dungey and her staff have spent the last three months knocking on doors and scouring social media in search of students needing help. They’ve pestered students’ friends. They’ve searched for their relatives — all to make sure that some of the nation’s most vulnerable children don’t get lost in the middle of a global pandemic.

“I need to make sure my kids are getting the education they deserve,” she said.

Principal Jacqueline Dungey checks her phone after knocking on a family's door a few blocks from her school and learning that the family had moved. (Jake Whitman / NBC News)
Principal Jacqueline Dungey checks her phone after knocking on a family’s door a few blocks from her school and learning that the family had moved. (Jake Whitman / NBC News)

All of the 127 students enrolled this year in grades K-5 at the Loving Academy, a tiny elementary school in Detroit’s North End, were considered economically disadvantaged by the state. Many of them, according to last year’s state test scores, already lagged behind their peers academically. And many faced significant challenges long before a deadly virus stole the lives of their loved ones or put their parents out of work.

So if Dungey couldn’t find them — and couldn’t make sure they got the food they needed, or the grief counseling, or the internet connection required to attend their online classes — they wouldn’t be able to learn.

“They’re going to fall further behind,” Dungey said as she prepared to knock on a student’s door last month. “The achievement gap is going to continue to grow, and it’s already wide enough.”

It’s not clear how many schools have the resources to track down students during a crisis. Many states have not required schools to log attendance these last few months and educators have been overwhelmed with the demands of shifting to remote instruction, changing the way they distribute meals to needy families and figuring out how to support students with disabilities while also suddenly having to instruct their own children, who have been underfoot.

And the intensity of the crisis has made tracking families difficult.

At the University YES Academy, which, like Loving, is in Detroit’s six-school New Paradigm for Education charter network, Principal Robert Hines said his staff found one student by convincing his friends to reach out to him through a multiplayer online video game. They found another through the student’s comments on the TikTok video sharing app.

One missing student — a first grader — turned up when her mother called to report that the girl was in the hospital with the virus and nearly died. “She flatlined,” Hines said.

Other parents said they were coping with loss or overwhelmed with financial stress. Some had phones that stopped working. Some were too sick or exhausted to figure out the technology for online learning.

But, whatever their reason, Dungey said, there’s too much at stake to let students fall through the cracks.

Related: “All COVID has done is put a magnifying glass on inequity in this country,” said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The grief and anger that have ignited protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last month have only made the need to reach children more crucial, Dungey said, since school can be a source of hope.

“It’s a very powerful piece for them to be able to not just understand the academic piece but where they’ve come from, what they need to do to be successful and how they can change the world,” she said.

Even as the school year comes to a close next week, she plans to keep following up with students, connecting them with summer school and making sure they’re ready for the fall, regardless of whether schools are able to open.

“We’re relentless,” Dungey said. “If we don’t go to some of these homes, those kids would never be online, and those kids deserve what everybody else has.”

‘Just know you’re not by yourself’

A second grader at the New Paradigm Glazer Academy, a K-8 school a few miles from Loving, had been absent from his online classes. His teacher called the boy’s father repeatedly and left messages. When she hadn’t heard anything by mid-April, she drove to the family’s house and left a note on the door, asking for someone to call.

The next day, someone did. It was the boy’s 22-year-old brother, who reported that their father had died. The young man now planned to raise his little brother.

“He said, ‘You know, my brother keeps asking for my dad and I don’t know what to tell him,’” said Yolanda Eddins, the director of community and parent affairs for the 2,400-student New Paradigm network, who reached out to the young man when she heard his family’s news.

COVID-19 has pummeled Detroit, killing more than 1,400 residents, one of the highest death rates in the nation.

The pain and grief that have shrouded Detroit have also rippled through the schools in the New Paradigm network.

Eddins estimated that as many as a third of students and staff at the six schools lost someone close to them to the virus — a number that would climb if she included extended families.

One Glazer parent lost her mother and father within a few days of each other, Eddins said. Another lost her father and two cousins in quick succession.

“Her kids were really clinging and crying,” Eddins said of that mom. “They saw so much loss.”

Yolanda Eddins (Jake Whitman / NBC News)
Yolanda Eddins (Jake Whitman / NBC News)

Eddins used some of the money from a COVID relief fund that New Paradigm put together with donations to buy groceries and toys for that distraught family. While shopping for them, she said, she stopped by the clothing section to pick up a cozy sweater for the mom, who was feeling isolated in her grief at home.

“I remember her saying how alone she felt,” Eddins said.

When she handed that package over later — wearing a mask and gloves on the sidewalk in front of the family’s home — Eddins told the mother to take some comfort from the sweater.

“I told her when you put that on, it’s going to soothe you,” Eddins said. “She started crying and I said, ‘Just know you’re not by yourself.’”

Detective work is only one of the new duties that educators in cities like Detroit have had to shoulder during this crisis, Eddins said. “We also have to be good listeners.”

Related: “It seems like one after another after another, and it’s just hitting close to home,” one city leader said.

Teachers and staff at New Paradigm schools have used shared spreadsheets to log daily calls to families, making note of those who’ve lost someone or who need support. They flag family members who are sick, and those who are struggling financially.

Eddins and New Paradigm President Ralph Bland review the tracker to decide who might need a gift card or a contribution from the community fund. They decide who might need grief counseling or a bouquet of flowers.

When the Glazer second grader who lost his father celebrated a recent birthday, they used some of the money to buy him a Spider-Man watch as a gift.

Hines, the University YES principal, said the network sent him a condolence card when he recorded his own loss in the tracker — a 62-year-old cousin who succumbed to the virus.

The network also offered to help the mother whose young daughter was in the hospital on life support, but she didn’t need much, Hines said. “She just asked for our prayers.”

Support from the school makes a difference, said Loretta Sailes, whose son, Jeremiah, 6, is about to finish kindergarten at Loving.

Jeremiah’s father died on April 5, just days after Jeremiah and his mom grieved the death of a cousin who lived in their building and had watched Jeremiah when his mother needed a babysitter.

The deaths have been hard on her son, Sailes said. But the online grief counseling the school set up for him has been helpful.

“They do some activities, like coloring and stuff, and they talk about his dad and about how he feels,” Sailes said.

‘Things change in a day or two’

It was a rainy Tuesday morning in mid-May when Dungey, the Loving Academy principal, pulled up in front of a small two-story house a few blocks from the school to meet with a third grader and her mother.

She adjusted her mask, put on her gloves and walked up the wooden porch steps to knock on the family’s door. But a woman called down from an upstairs window and said the family was gone.

“She didn’t tell you they were moving?” the woman asked.

Dungey had confirmed the appointment that morning with a phone call and a text but somehow hadn’t heard about a move. She pulled out her phone to call the child’s mother, but her call went straight to voicemail.

“I’m definitely confused,” she said, shaking her head.

Many of Dungey’s home visits end this way, with crossed wires and missed appointments. “Things change in a day or two and anything can happen,” she said.

It’s frustrating, but she gets it, she said. As a veteran educator with six children herself — including three still at home who need support with their online coursework — she knows families are busy and overwhelmed. She’ll keep calling until she can connect with this family, she said.

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This has become her life in the months since March 16, when Michigan’s schools closed. When she’s not consulting with teachers about instruction, posting video greetings for students or stopping by online classrooms, she’s been on the hunt for students.

By May, she’d managed to track down all of Loving’s students. But finding them once has proved insufficient. Sometimes they disappear again. And sometimes she has to return, week after week, to help families that need support.

“She came to my home at least four to five times,” said Doshinique Green, who has seven children, including three at Loving.

Green didn’t realize the school had been trying to get in touch with her until Dungey showed up on her doorstep one morning in early April.

Green, whose children range from a preschooler to a high schooler, works nights as a home health care aide and sleeps much of the day. In the early days of the pandemic, when a colleague was sick, she was working 12-hour shifts, six to seven days a week. She wasn’t able to help her children log into their classes.

“I couldn’t get them online because I was working and sleeping,” she said. “I couldn’t get up and be like, ‘OK, let me get them to do it.’ I was so exhausted.”

Green rarely answers her phone, which her children are often using, she said.

She was stunned when Dungey showed up at her door.

At that first visit, Dungey handed over a large bag with meals for the family. She came back the next week with a laptop, then again to show Green and her children how to log into the school’s online platform. But still, Dungey said, Green’s children weren’t doing their coursework so she kept calling — and kept visiting.

Eventually, in early May, Dungey masked up, came into the house, sat Green and her children around their dining room table, and showed them what they needed to do to access the school’s online platform.

That time, it finally clicked, Green said, and now her children know how to log in themselves.

“They can go online and talk to their teacher with no problem,” she said. And they don’t need help from their exhausted mother.

Dungey was thrilled when she saw all three of Green’s Loving students — in second, fourth and fifth grades — turn up for their classes the next day.

“They actually came to gym class,” Dungey said. “I’m, like, success!”

Dungey visited a student, Larrone, 9, and his mother, Lasheena Price, to help connect Larrone with his online classes. His family had moved and had trouble getting online in their new apartment. (Jake Whitman / NBC News)
Dungey visited a student, Larrone, 9, and his mother, Lasheena Price, to help connect Larrone with his online classes. His family had moved and had trouble getting online in their new apartment. (Jake Whitman / NBC News)

Finding students is not all about knocking on doors. Staff at University YES found a missing fifth grader by getting the child’s friends to convey a message from the school through his video gaming headset.

Jumar Motley, a school social worker, said the boy called the next day, claiming he’d been under the impression that the state’s emergency order closing schools exempted him from having to do school work. Motley corrected him — and warned him that he’d be the biggest fifth grader next fall if he couldn’t advance to the sixth grade.

“Now he’s plugging in with his class and doing his work,” he said.

University YES Academy social worker Jumar Motley says he wants students to know that
University YES Academy social worker Jumar Motley says he wants students to know that

Another University YES student surfaced when principal Hines posted a video of himself singing and dancing to TikTok. Several students responded — including a boy the school had been trying to reach.

“There was one kid that commented, ‘Yeah, Mr. Hines, you still got it.’ This was a kid we could not get in contact with at all,” Hines said. “I replied back on my TikTok: ‘Hey what’s your phone number? We’re trying to get in contact with you.’”

The child sent his number and soon began logging into his classes, Hines said.

‘We didn’t quit on them’

In late March and early April when Dungey was looking for Legend, her missing kindergartner, she didn’t realize that his grandmother, Mekialena Durham, was also trying to get in touch with the school.

Durham had become a foster parent to the 6-year-old and his younger siblings in early March but hadn’t told the school before it shut down. Later, with staff largely working from home, she hadn’t been able to reach anyone.

She had tried to coach her grandson on his letters and numbers, but worried he would fall behind without support from his teachers. “He needs a little bit of extra help,” she said.

Finally, on April 17, Dungey happened to be in the school’s office when the phone rang. It was a social worker now working with Legend and his family. The social worker gave Dungey a number for Legend’s grandmother and she immediately reached out.

“That very same day, she dropped homework off right onto my porch — a big old box of homework,” Durham said.

A week later, Dungey returned with a tablet so Legend could connect with his teacher online. She stood on the grandmother’s porch — from a distance, in a mask — to walk her through the steps to access the online platform.

“It was awesome!” Durham said. “She’s been really supportive. She said whenever you need me, just let me know.”

As the end of the school year approaches, educators in the New Paradigm network say they still have students struggling to regularly log into their classes. They plan to stay on them — and keep at it through the summer so students can make up what they missed in summer school.

Lasheena Price and her son, Larrone, 9, a second grader at Detroit's New Paradigm Loving Academy, wave goodbye to Dungey. (Jake Whitman / NBC News)
Lasheena Price and her son, Larrone, 9, a second grader at Detroit’s New Paradigm Loving Academy, wave goodbye to Dungey. (Jake Whitman / NBC News)

When it’s over, families will know “that we didn’t leave anybody behind,” said Motley, the social worker at University YES.

“They’ll see that we didn’t quit on them.”

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