Print This Article kansascity.com Back to web version

KC schools work to plug the flow of student dropouts

Tracking absent students isn’t an easy task for Kansas City schools.

By JOE ROBERTSON
The Kansas City Star

The first house is vacant.

“That’s what happens…,” Sam Johnson said. “They just up and leave.”

The search for absent students most often leads to porches like this one near 33rd Street and Bales Avenue, where a heavy real estate agent’s lock bars the door.

Or plywood may gag the front windows, like at the fourth address on Johnson’s list of students, near 39th and Benton Boulevard.

“Another one lost in the clouds,” he said.

At the moment, Kansas City Public Schools and the state of Missouri classify these students as dropouts.

But maybe they simply moved. Maybe they took up seats in someone else’s classrooms.

Area school districts often have difficulty finding out for sure. The hard economy has put more families on the edge of homelessness, moving place to place. And states’ student identification number systems, designed to allow schools to track the movement of students across districts, still lag in implementation.

But Johnson and his team member, Ahmed Hussein, and other teams dispatched throughout the district this summer keep knocking on doors.

Not only because Kansas City needs to account for departed students if it wants to demonstrate a stronger, more accurate graduation rate to its state reviewers.

But also because sometimes they reach a house like the one at 37th and Highland Avenue, the eighth house of the morning.

“Oh, thank you,” 42-year-old Mike Cox said, standing in his doorway.

He sees the two visitors in their black shirts that say “Student Intervention Team,” and he realizes why they’re there.

He has a teenage son who had stopped short of graduating from Paseo Academy.

“He needs to do something,” Cox said. “He got discouraged and stopped going. I should have made him go back.”

“If he doesn’t think he has options,” Johnson said, “tell him I can lay out a path for him.”

“I’m going to get to him today,” Cox said.

He gets Johnson’s phone number and plugs it into his cellphone.

Johnson and Hussein think this is the best part of their jobs as Kansas City dropout specialists.

Hussein is 29, a Somali immigrant who grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp. Give him a chance and he can tell a teenager how precious free education is. He wore one pair of shoes all through high school so his family could pay his way.

Johnson is 31, a graduate of Central High School and Park University, and working toward a doctorate degree in education leadership.

He grew up in this neighborhood. He knows what it’s like having to move between different homes. He can tell teenagers how he made it. Tell them he plans to be the superintendent someday.

I’ve got big plans. I’m coming to attack. Things need to be the way they need to be.

He left the porch with Hussein, charged up.

If a kid gets talking to me, I can help him out.

But much of the work is clerical, chasing bad numbers, tracking information of transient students that should have come back from schools where they landed.

The burden falls on all area districts, but it’s heaviest on districts with higher concentrations of poverty where transience is high.

Kansas City has been overwhelmed further by the continuing migration of some families to charter schools and other districts. Too often, student information doesn’t get passed between districts.

Kansas City began June with a list of some 1,400 students, kindergarten through the 12th grade, who were unaccounted for. The district first put its staff and teams of volunteers to work calling the last known phone numbers of these students. More than 900 were eventually confirmed to be in new schools in or out of state.

Then, where phone numbers failed, the door-to-door search began.

In 2011, Kansas City had 661 students in grades seven to 12 who remained listed as dropouts. It was the highest in the area by far, but other districts also have dropout concerns, with 250 in Kansas City, Kan., 192 in North Kansas City, 159 in Shawnee Mission, 151 in Raytown, 117 in Independence and at least 150 among area charter high schools.

Kansas reported 3,158 dropouts in 2011. Missouri reported 9,687.

Help is coming.

Both states have installed student identification numbering systems that will become a stronger tool as districts grow more sophisticated in how they use them.

This year, Missouri hopes to begin providing individual student profiles that a principal can summon for a new student who arrives at school midyear, said Leigh Ann Grant-Engle, Missouri’s assistant commissioner for data system management.

The individual student data system is already giving states the ability to measure academic growth. Similar tracking data could be accumulated to warn schools where students show signs of being in danger of dropping out, she said.

Schools could look at attendance history, the number of high school credits earned, past state test scores and discipline data such as suspensions, even if a student has floated among several school districts.

“There are no easy answers,” said Mike Jeffers, deputy director of secondary education for the North Kansas City School District.

“In this economic time, there are so many complexities with homelessness and families moving in with other family members.”

In each month of the school year, Jeffers said, North Kansas City may be tracking down 10 to 50 students whose attendance problems show they may be in danger of dropping out.

The Center School District has begun putting recent graduates to work over the winter break and the summer months, trying to make contact with dropouts, said Dave Leone, special assistant to the superintendent.

“They know how to use Facebook and social media,” Leone said.

A former student last winter made about 20 successful contacts with the 30 potential dropouts on her list and passed it back to Leone to follow through.

Raytown has also looked to social media to help remake connections with lost students, said Steve Shelton, the assistant superintendent for secondary education.

The district added two positions in the past year — attendance and dropout coordinators, whose job is to spot students at risk of dropping out and counsel them.

Shawnee Mission Associate Superintendent Curtis Cain said counselors try to meet with students as soon as they miss three days of school, even within the first 30 days, to try to cut down on its dropout rate.

“We want to be as proactive as we can,” Cain said.

Kansas City has put nine people on the task this summer of searching for its dropouts.

When the new school year starts in August, the district will be launching an information system that will improve daily attendance records and quickly alert counselors on concerns with absences.

It is collaborating with university programs to increase the number of counselors.

The district also is opening alternative schools for elementary and secondary students that will keep more students in classrooms and fewer in repeated suspensions that drive many out of school.

The intervention teams, after returning from another day of knocking on doors, reflect on these coming changes with the hope they won’t have to knock on so many doors in the days ahead.

But they are also freshly reminded how quickly many students’ lives can come undone.

Two counselors took a side trip during the morning. They wanted to visit the family of a Kansas City student who had died the previous weekend when the car he was in with six other teenagers crashed into a concrete pillar while fleeing police.

The house where they thought he lived was vacant.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

© 2014 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansascity.com