Educators on urgent mission to get absent students in school

Yordi Luna, 15 — who excels at math, likes science and likes to play soccer — missed about 40 to 50 days of class in his freshman year of high school, mother Leydi Luna said.

“I knew he was missed and I knew it was my responsibility to do something,” she said. But it wasn’t clear what.

As a single mother who had to get her younger child to school by 8am before work, she often just couldn’t get him to leave as his motivation had slowly evaporated as of March 2020 when campus closed.

Yordi, who will soon be a sophomore at Garfield High, was among the hundreds of thousands of LA Unified students who missed large chunks of the school year last year. Nearly half of the district’s students were chronically absentee, meaning they missed 10% or more of the school year. In the years leading up to the pandemic, about 19% were chronically absent – a number that was already considered high.

As the district prepares to welcome back students from summer break Monday, officials are under urgent pressure to get students to attend regularly. On Friday, counselors, staff who volunteered to help and Supt. Alberto Carvalho knocked on the doors of district families whose children hadn’t been showing up to school regularly, urging them to return – while also offering an insight into the sensitive pandemic difficulties that students and parents are still facing.

Although many absences were related to COVID-19 quarantines, the chronic absentee rate was nearly 30% even when these are accounted for, Carvalho said on Friday.

At the same time, the students have academic problems. When the state releases its standardized test data from last year, the district “will see a significant drop in performance in reading and math,” Carvalho said.

“Part of that is because our kids didn’t get to school,” he said. “It’s just not acceptable. We will not leave any of these children behind. It’s our moral thing. It is our professional responsibility.”

In the Local District East, which includes schools in Southeast and East LA, about 600 workers have been deployed to visit homes and make phone calls with an expectation of reaching about 1,000 students who missed 14 or more days last year had.

Carvalho, who was scheduled to visit five homes, invited reporters to join him.

The rise in chronic absenteeism is just part of a problem Carvalho calls the “lost children of Los Angeles.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho (left) punches a teenager in a park

LA Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho visits student Anderson Amaya, 13, at South Gate Park in South Gate on Friday.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

He has estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 students — perhaps even more — are not enrolled in the school or have simply stopped attending altogether.

These kids are harder to track. But district employees are also working to find them.

On Friday, almost all parents of a chronically absent student said the COVID-19 quarantines kept their children at home for long periods of time. One mother said her car stopped working, so she was struggling to take her young children to different schools. A 17-year-old girl said she felt stressed and overwhelmed by the amount of work.

Yordi Luna said that when he was in seventh grade, the year the campus was closed, he enjoyed being at school — especially seeing his friends every day.

During eighth grade, which was almost entirely virtual, he essentially stopped walking.

“It was so easy not to go because it was only online,” he said. Instead, he would sleep or play video games.

When his freshman year came and in-person learning resumed fully, he said, “I didn’t feel like going to school was that important.”

His attendance improved towards the end of the school year when an attendance consultant took him under her wing, encouraging him while also tracking his daily whereabouts.

A teenager with a boxed laptop with his mother on the left and a man on the right

Cloud Mejia, 13, receives a new laptop and backpack during a visit Friday from LA Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho, right, while mother Aimee Mejia looks on.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Aimee Mejia said her child Cloud, 13, missed so many days of school last year that it would be easier to count the number of days Cloud was present.

It’s not that Cloud, who uses she/them pronouns, didn’t want to go to school. Often they would tell Mejia to wake them up in the morning so they could go the next day. But then the morning anxiety would strike.

Cloud was bullied at school and had a hard time making friends.

“I wish it was more inviting,” Cloud said.

When Carvalho showed up outside her home, Mejia took the opportunity to urge the superintendent what he would do to make the school more welcoming for her child.

She said she wanted the opportunity to be back on campus as a volunteer, which Cloud finds comforting. For much of the past year, parents have been discouraged from volunteering as part of the district’s COVID-19 safety precautions.

Carvalho assured her that she could now volunteer on campus.

“Are you sure?” Said Mejia. She had asked beforehand and was turned down.

“What I say goes, right?” he said.

“That’s right, he’s the boss,” said Local District East Superintendent José Hurta.

Mejia also questioned why when the students went back to school they had to spend so much class time on the computer. Cloud chimed in, adding that her classmates sometimes spent that time watching Netflix.

“I saw that myself,” said Carvalho. “And that is unacceptable.”

“We switched to online learning and now that we are back in school we are still doing online learning in school. That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. While some level of digital learning is important, he said, face-to-face interactions are crucial.

That’s why, said Carvalho, he was visiting that day.

“Tell him what discourages you,” Mejia said to Cloud.

The uniform, Cloud replied. Cloud’s clothing is how they express themselves, they said.

“No policy should prevent a student from going to school,” said Carvalho.

He told Cloud that he would like to visit them at school and follow them for a few hours. Throughout the day, Carvalho reiterated that the visits were not “one off”.

Personal visits will continue throughout the school year, he said.

Before leaving, Carvalho promised Mejia personalized help for her child “to make sure we actually connect to Cloud… To ensure fast acceleration.” To ensure the best adjustment to the school.”

“I see,” Mejia said. She hoped, she added, that it would be quick. Educators on urgent mission to get absent students in school

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