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Districts reach out to students online for Count Day

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Thousands of students are missing from Detroit public schools this fall, and finding them is even more important this year for Wednesday's first tally of Michigan students that is tied to critical state funding.

Some are missing classes because they lack a laptops at home for virtual learning amid the pandemic. Others have a device but parents say they cannot successfully log in to learning platforms to access lessons.

Jenell Mansfield, center, executive director of Parent Academy, accompanied by parent volunteer Stacey Johnson, talks to a parent on Northlawn in Detroit about why her son wasn't attending classes. The mom said he didn't have a device to do his lessons.

Others have enrolled in other districts but never unenrolled from the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Volunteers for Detroit public schools have been going home to home and knocking on doors for weeks, trying to find the 8,000 students who enrolled for the new school year but never showed up in September, either in person or by logging in online to do school work.

"We know who has enrolled and who hasn't returned," said Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for Detroit Public Schools Community District. "When we go door to door, we ask parents what is the quickest way to get them into school. We made this a huge priority, getting all kids in school."

Locating them is essential, as school districts statewide on Wednesday take an offical attendance for Count Day, one of two days in the school year tied to setting state per pupil funding for schools.

As thousands of students learn remotely during the pandemic, finding lost students has been a challenge for some districts.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP lawmakers changed the Count Day formula this summer to minimize the budgetary impact of students abandoning districts this fall for prefered learning plans in others. 

Bill DiSessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said during the pandemic, a new formula called a "super blend" is being used to determine district funding. It is a weighted blend of 75% of last year’s pupil count and 25% of this year’s pupil count.

That means districts with big losses won't feel as much financial pain, and districts that receive new students and see their enrollment grow won't financially benefit, either.

Michigan's two count days — on Wednesday and the second Wednesday in February have a 30-day count "period" that allows school officials to count students beyond the designated count "day."

This year attendance for virtual learning will be determined using two methods based on the concept of “two-way interactions” between a student and teacher.

During the period, teachers may count a student through multiple, two-way online interactions. The count can be taken once a week during one scheduled class.

The other option is counting a student during an "activity" in each of the student's scheduled courses but only on Count Day.

Activities are defined as attendance in a live lesson, a student login online or into a virtual lesson, a phone call or by email exchange between a student and teacher.

Parent volunteer Stacey Johnson, left, and Jenell Mansfield check their cellphones for the next address to visit on Santa Barbara in Detroit while tracking down students around Mumford High School who are not attending school online or in person.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System, which started the school year online, has lost 500 students this school year, officials said. 

About 200 of those students came from the difference between graduating seniors and incoming kindergarten students, said M. Jon Dean, deputy superintendent of the district.

An additional 300 students left the district for face-to-face instruction at private and parochial schools nearby, for home schooling or those who delayed kindergarten, Dean said.

Dean said the change in the funding formula is good news for his district.

"That is good for us," Dean said. "If we are losing 500 we are only feeling impact of 25%, rather than 75%. That is the simple math."

Steve Matthews, superintendent for Novi Community Schools, said Count Day will be like any other day for his district, with teachers taking attendance in person for students in school and teachers taking attendance online for students learning at home remotely.

"At the elementary, we take attendance in a.m. and p.m. session and for grades 6-12, we take attendance every hour. For us, Count Day won't be a huge deal. Teachers will be logging in acting like its a regular day," Matthew said.

Matthews said attendance at his school is around 90%, which he said was typical and he the district does not have many missing students.

"We are 19 days into school and our number last year was 6,700. We are very close that," he said.

In Detroit, the state's largest school district, Count Day has historically been hyped with pizza parties, giveways and other events to get students to school that day.

School officials continue to focus on the door-to-door campaign, which has reached 6,000 households with volunteers making personal contact with parents, guardians and students.

Volunteers are working through the last 2,000 students on the list this week.

Of the 8,000 missing students, Wilson said on Friday she cannot say how many have officially engaged in face-to-face learning or logged in since the home visit to be considered enrolled and counted this week.

Last school year, the district had 51,000 students and received about $8,142 per student from the state.

"We will have (the number) after we finish this work and the count period window," Wilson said.

Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, said the visits to the homes let parents know the district is here to help get their child engaged in school.

Volunteers are trained to help parents get devices, access login and password information, and provide help on the spot to get their child into school, Buckman said.

Last school year, 38% of Detroit Public Schools Community District students were chronically absent, which meant they missed 10 or more days of school. 

"This is about making sure kids are in school every day. Weknewthe pandemic would exacerbate this," Buckman said. "It's about the whole school year and making sure have can eliminate barriers now."

Last week, several dozen volunteers reached 200 homes in less than two hours, including a home on Northlawn where the mother of a second grader who was not engaged in school answered the door.

The mother, who did not want to identified, explained she had no laptop for her son and she was unsure if she should send him to school in person during the pandemic.

Jenell Mansfield, executive director of the DPSCD Parent Academy, told the parent to drive to the school on Monday and ask for a laptop. She also offered her literature about logins, help from DTE for paying electric bills and parent training opportunities.

Stacey Johnson, a volunteer who walked door to door with Mansfield on Friday, said parents are receptive to workers offering help in getting a child into school.

"You know with COVID, people have become somewhat disengaged. People are just trying to survive. They are front-line essential workers," Johnson said. "Some people are just in a fog. Our goal is not to condemn people but to reach out to get them back in school."

jchambers@detroitnews.com