How one US city is working to get students off the streets, back in school
Byron Pitts speaks with students who say they have no support at school.
School districts across the country are fighting a battle against empty seats in classrooms.
Since the pandemic, the number of kids regularly skipping school has skyrocketed, from 8.2 million in 2019 to 14.7 million in the 2021-2022 school year, according to U.S. Dept. of Education data.In 2021, 2 million students dropped out of school, the report by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics said.
Sonya Douglass Horsford, an Associate Professor of Education Leadership, Columbia University, told "Nightline" the traditional education system is not benefiting several groups.
"The education system is not working for Black and African American students. It's not working for students who may speak a language other than English. It's not working for students with disabilities. It's not working for students who live in poverty, and it's not working for students who don't have an advocate who can make sure that their needs are being met," she said.
While school officials scramble to find a solution, a nonprofit group in Hartford, Connecticut, has been implementing a street-level strategy that they say confronts the root of the problem.
"Nightline" co-anchor Byron Pitts spoke with several Hartford students who have recently dropped out of schools; some said that they felt that the school system failed them.
Rahean Hodges, 17, said he left school in 2020 after the COVID break because he didn't feel motivated anymore.
"I would show up, but I just wouldn't, like, participate or anything," he said.
Rahean added that he didn't get any support from his school.
"They would make me feel like I was stupid. Like, I would ask for help, and, I literally, wouldn't understand it, and they would make me feel like I was just dumb or something," he said.
Genesis Luciano, 18, told "Nightline" that she had a lot going on in her life. She was homeless and school didn't catch her attention. She also stressed that no one at school provided her with the support she needed.
"I was a good student in a bad situation," Genesis said.
But recently, Genesis and Raheen were able to get that help from mentors who are part of the nonprofit COMPASS Youth Collaborative.
The group's "peace builders” go out into Hartford and meet truant youth students, offering them training, group counseling, job training and provide basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.
Diego Lopez, a COMPASS peace builder who dropped out of school in the ninth grade, told "Nightline" that many school officials simply do not understand the myriad obstacles that students face, especially in the dangerous parts of the city, and those students need extra care.
"They're struggling with safety. They struggle with trauma, and we expect our children to learn when they don't even know if they're going to live," he said.
The program helps truant students get back on track. Genesis is now enrolled in an alternative school and is looking to be a nail technician.
She credited her peace builder mentor Haley Jones as being instrumental in her return to school.
Jones told "Nightline" that she felt she could have been like Genesis had she been born in a different ZIP code.
"It's just not her fault. The world needs Gen here," she said. "The world needs to hear from Gen and there's many more kids just like her."
Despite the success of nonprofit groups like COMPASS, experts said public school systems need to step up and rethink their curriculums and approaches to student wellbeing.
Jacquelyn Santiago Nazario, the CEO of COMPASS Youth Collaborative, told "Nightline" that schools have become antiquated.
"Youth have come to me and they have told me that school feels like detention, like detention centers, like jail," Nazario said.
"There's a large segment of this world that thinks that they should get up and they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they don't have boots," she added.
Some school boards struggling with the growth in truancy, including Hartford's, are adapting.
Hartford School Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez told "Nightline" that she had a wakeup call when she found out that a quarter of the district's kindergartners had chronic absenteeism.
She acknowledged the numerous factors behind students skipping school, including medical issues, and said that schools could present solutions.
Michael D. Fox Elementary School, one of the schools in the district, recently opened a medical clinic inside the building that's staffed by physician's assistant Brooke Kokus.
Kokus told "Nightline" that the clinic helps keep kids in classes since they could easily get medications, get checked for a condition or other non-urgent medical request, in half an hour and be back in class.
The school district said student attendance at Michael D. Fox has improved since the clinic was established.
"If we can keep them healthy, we've got them at the best of their ability -- to be able to focus on reading, or learning math, or whatever it might be," Kokus said.
The school also has a food pantry, which Torres-Rodriguez said is part of the district's new holistic approach to going beyond just teaching students reading, writing and arithmetic.
"We, in schools, are tasked with solving for a lot. So a lot of the systemic challenges that happen, all of that plays out in the classroom, in our schools, and we have to solve for it. We're not going to turn our back on our students."
Nazario said that more work needs to be done to keep students from leaving school, but said that if the crisis is ever going to get solved, it has to start with an effort to show the students that they matter.
"These kids deserve to dream. They deserve to have a good night's sleep. They deserve to have food to eat. And they deserve not to be judged," Santiago said.
ABC News' Lauren DiMundo, Deb Jones, Darrell Calhoun, Jessica Hopper and Ivan Pereira contributed to this report.
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