Houston ISD found just 1,000 of its 8,500 prioritized lost students

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Whether it's getting computers and hotspots to families without one or tracking down students who just never showed up to online classes in the spring, the Houston Independent School District says it is committed to finding the students who stopped engaging.

"I want all HISD parents to know that your HISD family is here for you 100%," Billy Solomon, Senior Manager of Innovative Projects for HISD, told 13 Investigates Ted Oberg on Wednesday. "Whatever the case is, we want to make sure that your kids have everything they need to be successful on Sept. 8 (the first day of school)."

The district said it is conducting targeted outreach to about 8,500 students who were uncontactable or not engaged in the spring. It hired additional staff, and now has 210 wraparound specialists who help connect families who need assistance with non-academic support, such as getting connected to food, medical services or housing.

But, throughout the summer, the specialists have only made contact with about 1,000 of those 8,500 students.

13 Investigates found far more students in need of re-engagement. Nearly one in four HISD students either weren't contactable or weren't fully engaged throughout the entire Spring, according to data provided by the district.

Specifically, 7,579 students were completely uncontactable and another 25,064 students were never engaged, according to Houston ISD data submitted based on Texas Education Agency engagement guidelines. Another 2,584 students were contacted by May, but not engaged and 13,410 students dropped off and were not contactable or engaged from May through the end of the year.

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"We know that the vast majority of our kids who didn't engage last year, didn't engage because they didn't have access to either a device to complete their daily assignments or they didn't have access to the internet," Solomon said. "Once we solve that issue, we have to address the other needs. What we call in HISD the wraparound services needs (like) 'I became homeless.' 'My family lost their job.' 'We don't have food.' 'I don't have a space to work.'"

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Houston ISD School Board Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents three of the 10 worst engaged schools, said the pandemic unveiled the hurdles some children have to overcome regarding getting an education. But, even once a student gets a device, she said it's up to educators and parents to make sure the child is actually logged on, attending classes, paying attention and doing their homework.

"What scares me is that people have waited through the summer and have not engaged their children all summer and now, starting Sept. 8, we'll actually go online and those grades will count," said Blueford-Daniels, who represents the Greater Fifth Ward, where she grew up. "We can't afford for our children to be left out."

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This year, HISD said teachers will monitor student engagement and progress based on participation in daily live instruction and completed assignments as well as time spent on the district's learning management system.

"Attendance will be even more critical this upcoming year, since in Texas funding is tied to how many students are in class," said Duncan Klussmann, a former Texas public school superintendent who now teaches at the University of Houston.

He said finding some of the children who disappeared during the spring to get them reengaged is challenging.

"I talked to one superintendent where their biggest struggle was every phone number that they had for many students wasn't good or had changed or they've moved and they're no longer at that address," Klussmann said. "That's the reality of our world; that we work within schools. There are many students who are very mobile, who we do not have good, solid information on to be able to follow through the system."

Ahead of the new school year, HISD said it's reaching out to students through a three-tiered approach, starting with establishing contact through phone calls, text messages and letters in multiple languages, Solomon said.

The district asks those parents to complete a survey that provides more information on why their student was unable to engage in class - whether it was due to lack of a device, homelessness, employment issues or something else.

"Tier two is going to be a little bit more of a targeted approach where those wraparound services specialists, counselors at the campus and other staff members are going to start contacting students a little bit more directly," Solomon said. "So not robocalls and letters home, but rather an actual person on the phone who is there to help walk you through the process and to make sure that you have what you need to be successful on day one."

Solomon said the final tier will involve actual home visits to students who were not engaged.

Statewide, a majority of the students who lost engagement were younger learners.

"Think about a K through first- or second grade student who's in their formative years of reading instruction or math instruction, and this is going to have a long-term effect," Klussmann said. "What we're going to have to do is rethink what school looks like when it goes back to somewhat normal and make sure that we're providing the opportunity for students to be able to catch up and learn those skills."

One of the ways HISD will make sure those young learners are on track is by utilizing a reading and math screener to determine a student's academic level.

"The beginning-of-year screener will be administered to all students in grades K-8, and only to high school students who have not met standards on the STAAR EOCs for English I, English II, and/or Algebra I," the district said.

These screenings will allow students to get more opportunities to receive interventions that involve one-on-one sessions or instruction with teachers in smaller group sizes.

The district also added eight remediation days to its calendar, which will serve as "Academic Boot Camps, for students who may have fallen behind due to the COVID-19 closure."

They'll take place during the Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks and will allow students who need additional help in certain subjects the opportunity to get caught up academically.

Parents who need help enrolling their children this year can go to HoustonISD.org/enroll or call the district's hotline at 713-556-4636. Parents who need help with food insecurity or other social services can reach out to specialists at http://houstonisd.org/wraparound

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