'The streets or ... jail': 13 Investigates what's working in the battle to get students back

PEARLAND, Texas (KTRK) -- Gianni Juarez slammed the top of her laptop closed. She's a visual learner and listening to her teachers explain math, science and English online always left her feeling confused.

"One day I was like, 'You know what? I'm not going to school anymore,'" said Juarez, a former Pearland Independent School District student. "I'm just done. Like, I'm done with it. Like, I would just rather get my GED and just do the test, pass it and then just move on."

Despite missing 30 days of school, the district wouldn't give up.

"We really push hard and she was way too close and I'm like, 'You can't give up here,'" said Susan Holloway, the director of student outreach and attendance at Pearland ISD. "We don't take no for an answer."

For every excuse Juarez made for dropping out, someone from Pearland ISD's dropout and prevention team offered a solution that would end with her walking across the stage and graduating.

After receiving constant encouraging text messages from a teacher and at-home visits from Holloway, Juarez finally agreed to go to Pearland's PACE Center, an alternative school that offers smaller classes and more individualized instruction.

"When we get those kids back, I think they have more skin in the game. Now, they're out to prove that they can do it," Holloway said. "They have to feel seen, heard and valued."

WATCH: 13 Investigates how Houston-area schools convince dropouts to return
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The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on some students, especially after tens of thousands of them left public schools. 13 Investigates looks at what districts are doing to get them

Throughout the pandemic, 13 Investigates has been monitoring public school enrollment, which is declining across the state. Our investigation found the 10 Houston-area public school districts with the biggest decline in enrollment over the last two years also have high school dropout rates worse than the state average.

But, we also found Pearland ISD's model is working. The district has one of the lowest dropout rates in Texas. Just eight of the 1,851 Pearland ISD seniors who were supposed to graduate in 2020 dropped out, according to the Texas Education Agency. Dropout data for seniors who were supposed to graduate in 2021 will be available later this year.

Statewide, public school enrollment is down by 76,458 students compared to the 2019-20 school year, when the pandemic began. More than half of that enrollment drop comes from just 10 Houston-area districts.

Alief ISD's enrollment is down 11% and enrollment at Houston and Spring ISD is down nearly 9% each.

In Texas, state aid to public schools is determined by enrollment. In the two previous school years, there was a hold harmless agreement so districts weren't financially penalized for enrollment declines during the pandemic.

For the current 2021-22 school year, a hold harmless agreement hasn't been granted but is under consideration by the state.

"TEA has indicated they are currently reviewing data on the issue, and have made no final decisions yet," the state agency said in a statement to 13 Investigates.

If the agreement isn't extended this year, Houston ISD would be at risk of losing $225 million in funding if its enrollment doesn't increase to pre-pandemic levels.

SEE ALSO: Daunting task' to locate students as thousands are still missing from Houston-area schools

At Pearland ISD, Holloway said rather than focusing on the numbers, she focuses on making sure each child's needs are met.

"If the kids aren't there, you can't teach them. So everything else, the curriculum, the budget, all those things will fall in place if you have the kids there," she said.

The average dropout rate for public and consolidated school districts was 4.2% in 2020, according to our analysis of state data. In Harris County, 10 of the 18 public school districts have dropout rates higher than that state average.

"It scares me that they'll still have to be tax-paying citizens one day and they won't be able to survive on their own. They won't have enough skills and resources to really be OK," said Erin Steamer, a graduation coach at Houston ISD's Madison High School. "They are our future doctors and lawyers and I think we're missing a lot. We are missing the education piece of it. ... It's going to be a big gap in just learning."

Our investigation looked at each district's longitudinal dropout rate, which tracks graduating classes starting in 9th grade through their senior year.

In Texas, a student is considered a dropout if they don't return to their district, or another one, at the start of a new year and also do not have their GED or diploma. Students who were held back a year, graduated early, received a GED, moved to another district or switched to homeschooling or private school are not considered dropouts.

At Houston ISD, the largest district in the state, 11.6% of students in the Class of 2020 dropped out - that's about one out of every eight highschoolers in that graduating class.

When looking at all grade levels, there are about 18,000 fewer Houston ISD students than before the pandemic. Still, the dropout rate for highschoolers has been consistently above 11% over the last five years.

"I'm focused on the individual student that's right in front of me," said Asia Duhon-Guillory, a Houston ISD outreach worker who makes home visits to dropouts. "I don't spend my time focused on the numbers. Is this going to decrease the numbers? Is this going to make it higher? I'm looking at this particular student: How can I fix it? How can I help you?"

Right now, Houston ISD said it is trying to reach out to 888 potential dropouts. Most of them are high school students.

"You're trying to get them. It's not like you just don't call them every day," Duhon-Guillory said. "We do phone banks. We do all of these things, trying to find where they are and get them back engaged in school. So I think the thing that worries me is are they okay? Those kids that we couldn't find, are they okay?"

'Don't have enough staff'

At Aldine ISD, teachers, coaches or other staff with close relationships with dropouts are asked to reach out and encourage them to re-enroll. The district also makes home visits and provides flexible schooling options that would allow students to both work and attend school.

"Many students started working to help support their families," the district said in a statement. "It has been a challenge motivating these students to return to school to graduate."

Aldine ISD's dropout rate for highschoolers in 2020 was 14.7%, which is the highest in the Houston area. Its dropout rate was above 14% for years, even before the pandemic.

The district has four dropout recovery and attendance specialists, as well as one clerical support staff worker who works with them. Each campus also has an attendance and dropout committee.

"Having a larger team to focus solely on dropout recovery would definitely help support the efforts," Aldine ISD said.

Holloway, who is also president of the Texas Association for Truancy & Dropout Prevention, said she knows many districts across the state are going "above and beyond" to keep students in school, but they just don't have enough resources to get every student back.

"They have a hard time," she said. "You have to make connections with families. These are people. You have to connect with their heart first and once you do that, the rest falls into place."

INTERACTIVE: Want to know how other districts work to prevent students from dropping out? We take a look at the 10 largest districts in the Houston area. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.

13 Investigates asked the 10 largest districts in the Houston area how they staff their dropout prevention teams.

At Houston ISD, there are 23 employees devoted full-time to dropout recovery and prevention, but that doesn't include people like Steamer, a graduation coach for Madison High. She tries to go with Duhon-Guillory on home visits because she has a closer relationship with the students on her campus who dropped out. But then that means one less support staff on campus.

"I'm a big presence on campus and so I can't be out in the field and be in two places at once," Steamer said. "Education is in a national state of emergency. We're missing teachers. We need help."

Pasadena ISD, whose 2020 dropout rate for highschoolers is 5.9%, said it has zero full-time staff dedicated to just dropout prevention. Still, the district said there are "checks and balances" in place, like sending notices to parents whenever their child isn't at school and working with truancy officers.

In the fall, Pasadena ISD said administrators and principals compile a list of every student who hasn't returned that year. The district conducts home visits to encourage them to come back and said that effort "seems to be working."

Holloway said keeping children in schools has to be a year-round effort.

She said typically her outreach team is off for the summer, but this year Pearland ISD created a "search and assist" department to make sure any students who fell behind at the start of the pandemic had what they needed to start the next school year successfully. This includes providing the students with food, clothing and transportation and helping find them stable housing.

"It starts at the top and goes down. (Pearland ISD gives) us the tools we need," Holloway said. "In some districts, they just don't have enough staff. They don't have enough people. They really don't."

'I'm on their team'

Duhon-Guillory holds a clipboard with the names and addresses of five students who stopped going to classes at Houston ISD's Madison High this school year. She goes over each student's background and decides who to visit first.

"I always pray before I go to those visits, like, let's say the right thing, let me connect, let (them) see that I'm on their team and I'm not against them and I'm going to help them," Duhon-Guillory said.

One Friday morning on January, 13 Investigates spent the morning with Duhon-Guillory and Steamer as they made those home visits.

When they arrived at the first dropout's apartment complex and knocked, they were greeted by a barking dog. No one answered the second time they knocked.

"Maybe we could just leave (the handouts)," Duhon-Guillory said as she pulled a paper with resources on it from her clipboard. "I got my number on here. She can always call."

She also hung a piece of paper on the doorknob, with the words "You are missed at school" written in all caps. Steamer took a picture of the front door to confirm they visited.

"We'll have to come back. Maybe schedule a Saturday or after work," Duhon-Guillory told Steamer. "What time does mom get off (work)?"

Despite the frustration that their first visit of the day turned up empty, they went on four more home visits on Jan. 14, including two 18-year-olds who said their full-time jobs were a contributing factor for them dropping out. Another student was just weeks away from having her baby and another was visiting their dad out of state, got COVID and hadn't returned yet.

Before the pandemic, teen pregnancies, students who failed or fell behind in schoolwork, students who had to take care of their younger siblings or who had to work to financially support their families were leading causes for dropouts, Duhon-Guillory said.

Over the last two years, she said students who faced heightened financial and family stressors for the first time are at risk of dropping out.

"You're running across students who never had that issue before. 'I've been in a safe environment. My parents are both working. I don't know what that feels like to be homeless,'" Duhon-Guillory said. "Now, with the pandemic ... (students who) never had to think about being a sole provider are now having to step out and be the sole provider because their parents lost their jobs."

Although high school dropouts may be working hard now to provide for their families, federal data shows they'll make less long-term if they don't get a diploma.

In Harris County, residents 25 years and older who do not have a high school diploma make about $14,500 less every year, compared to the median income of 25-plus residents in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The unemployment rate for dropouts is higher, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

In Pearland, Juarez said she watched her older friends who dropped out of high school fail to have the life she wants for herself. Even though she thought they were her friends, she soon realized if they cared about her, they would have encouraged her to go to school.

"I have friends who dropped out and regret it to this day. For me, seeing them struggle motivated me to keep going to school," she said. "Every day, I sit back and think how hard this journey was for me, refusing help from people that care, struggling, missing months of school to make sure my little sister got up for school."

'It shows they care'

Anthony Butler lives less than a mile away from Houston ISD's Madison High. It's just a 10-minute walk, or a three-minute drive to campus every day. But despite how close he is to the school, and to getting his diploma, the 18-year-old dropped out in November.

"I want to but there's a lot of things going on in my personal life that makes it really hard," he said.

Butler, who lives with his ailing grandmother and disabled uncle, said he got into trouble recently and it ended up costing his family financially. Now, he works two jobs, at a moving company and a shoe store. He averages around 12 hours a day at work, which he said leaves little time and energy for school.

"I had to start helping her out a little bit more and my plan honestly was I was going to just go get a GED and find a job somewhere," Butler said.

Butler was one of the students the district's outreach worker visited last month when 13 Investigates shadowed them.

When we arrived, Duhon-Guillory thanked Butler for staying up that morning after working a double shift so they could talk about the best way to get him back in school.

"Would you have time for school, maybe in the day, like now you're off (work), maybe four hours a day?" Duhon-Guillory asked him. "Be honest with me. How much time could you devote to school?"

Duhon-Guillory said she works with every student she visits to create an individualized plan to help them finish high school.

"Every kid that we went to really was different," Duhon-Guillory said. "Came from the same school, but every situation was different. We didn't have a, 'This is what you do and that's it.' We had to accommodate them where they were. We had to meet them where they were."

Houston ISD outreach worker Asia Duhon-Guillory, seated, and Madison High graduation coach Erin Steamer talk to Frank Albornoz on Jan. 14, 2021, about reenrolling in the district.

Duhon-Guillory and Steamer also visited Frank Albornoz, who stopped going to Madison High in October, during his senior year.

Even though school had been a priority for him - his transcript shows As in several classes - he said got a job at a moving company and moved to an apartment after dealing with family and financial issues.

"Everybody knows, like everywhere you go people ask me, 'Did you graduate high school or something,' and you want to say, 'Yeah,'" Albornoz said.

With every student Duhon-Guillory visited, she gave them a copy of their transcript, told them, "You are so close" and went over several nontraditional high school options that would let them work while going to school a few hours a day.

"You can do this," Duhon-Guillory told Albornoz.

He already passed all of the state standardized tests needed to graduate and only needs two English classes and two electives to graduate, she told him.

"You could literally knock this out by the end of summer," Duhon-Guillory said. "I mean, focused though, right? Like having to go to school every day, doing everything that you need to do and you could actually get this done."

Steamer chimed in, "You've been out of school for a month and a half, so we don't want to wait too long. Because if you get too comfortable, you're not going to ever do it."

The two said they would continue calling and texting him until he re-enrolled and graduated. On Tuesday, Houston ISD said they're working with Albornoz to get him enrolled in online school due to his work schedule.

Over the last two years, Duhon-Guillory said the list of students on her list of dropouts or potential dropouts has grown. Whenever she visits them, she won't take no for an answer.

"You tell me you don't have uniforms. I tell you, I have them. You tell me you don't have transportation. I tell you, I have it. You say, 'I need a daycare.' I tell you 'I have it," she said. "I'm not going to take a lot of excuses. So there's no reason to say no while I'm right there with you."

With hundreds of students on the district's list, she knows some of them may change their mind after she leaves.

"I would love to see that list go down to zero, but the reality of it is, these kids have different situations that may not allow them to finish," she said. "So of all the visits we did today, I think it was five or six, if I could get Frank to finish, then that's a success because what I'm hoping is once Frank finishes, he's going tell somebody else and they're going to tell somebody else and it's going to all work out."

Despite the overwhelming number of students they're trying to reenroll, Steamer believes she can help every child they visit in some way.

"What motivates me is just to remember I was that child and I needed a 'me' when I was in HISD," Steamer said. "I was in an underserved community and I needed somebody. I lost my dad while I was in school and I didn't have anywhere I could go and say, 'Please help me get through this.' I just think that if I had somebody to be able to really go to bat and be a liaison for me, like I was their child, like I do for my students ... I think that things would've been a little (different)."

Butler said without the multiple calls and home visits from the district, there would be "zero" chance he would consider going back to school.

"It shows that they care," Butler said. "I knew (at) Madison, a lot of teachers and staff there do care, but it's hard to take care of all kids there because a lot of people have the same problem."

After that visit from the district, Butler said he would consider going back to school.

"It would mean a lot to my family if I got my high diploma and kept going with my education," he said. "It would be nice. It would make things a little bit easier, but I was convinced and ready to just work for everything."

'I made it to graduation'

Whenever Holloway and the Pearland dropout team showed up randomly at Juarez's front door, she said her first thought was, "Oh my God. Like, what are y'all doing here?"

There was a part of Juarez that knew she wanted to go back to school. She just needed the extra support.

"We break down barriers. You have to make sure their needs are met before you talk about school," Holloway said. "We took school supplies. We took hygiene. We took food. We took detergent. We took the community resource list to give them other places they could call. ... When they figure out that we're a resource and not like a hammer, then they really respond positively."

Holloway said one thing that's led to their program's success is they keep in contact with students even after their needs are met. She said they first connected with Juarez in 2017, after Hurricane Harvey, when a homeless liaison offered support to displaced students like her.

Over the years, several people at the district built a relationship with Juarez, so when she disappeared from class for about 30 days last year, they could all call and make home visits encouraging her to return to school - and she listened.

"When she started disengaging, I could call her, our attendance officer could call her, our homeless liaison could call her. We all knew her already," Holloway said. "Anywhere she turned, she would have a person say, 'No. You need to finish. You're too close.'"

At the PACE Center, where Juarez enrolled, Holloway said they have around 100 highschoolers total, mostly juniors and seniors. It allows for a much smaller class size compared to Pearland High School which has around 3,500 students, she said.

Despite the cost of devoting more teachers to fewer students, she said it provides an environment that ensures nearly all of their students graduate.

"(Gianni) had gotten behind and she didn't think - she didn't believe in herself and so that's where we give them hope and you can do it and we believe in you and she has flourished at this campus," Holloway said. "She needed a smaller environment, those connections."

When we talked to Juarez in December, she was excited about getting to experience a graduation like the rest of her peers: wearing a cap and gown and smiling as the crowd cheered when they called her name.

During the PACE Center graduation on Jan. 21, Juarez didn't just get her diploma. She shared her experience as one of two student speakers for her graduating class. She thanked her teachers and the outreach team, saying, 'if it wasn't for each of you, I would be in the streets right now or probably in jail."

"I have been through so much, all these 12 years, getting into trouble with the cops, sneaking out and being in places I had no business being in," Juarez said during her speech. "There were plenty of times where I just wanted to drop out and run the streets because I just wanted to be with people that didn't care about my goals. However, I am glad I didn't because dropping out of school would provide the first step to struggling for the rest of my life."

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