Edwin, a second grader, has leukemia. Kelly, a 13-year-old just arrived in the United States, was pregnant. Both students were living in Stamford. Both were missing school regularly.
Katia Pazmino, an outreach worker at Family Centers employed by Stamford Public Schools to make home visits, went to see what she could do to help.
Pazmino said that their stories were two of many from her work as part of the state of Connecticut’s Learner Engagement and Assistance Program, which sends school employees or local community workers to visit the homes of children who are chronically absent from school.
Chronic absenteeism — defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a given year — has risen dramatically since the pandemic, and the overall rise has continued this year. State data shows that from last year to this year, chronic absenteeism increased from 23.4 percent of students to 25.4 percent this year. That’s roughly double the 12.2 percent rate from the year prior to the pandemic.
In 2021, the state’s Department of Education took $10.7 million in federal COVID relief funds to start the home visitors program, reaching over 8,600 students, in 15 school districts struggling with high levels of poverty and chronic absenteeism.
“A disconnect between family and school”
A team of researchers from UConn, Wesleyan University and Central Connecticut State University evaluated the program from March through December 2022, and their findings suggested that even a single home visit significantly increased attendance rates for students.
Home visits, Pazmino said, are able to connect students with resources and respond to specific situations that keep students out of school, like mental health struggles, the inability of special education students to have their needs met, situations of domestic violence and new arrivals to the country who are trying to get situated.
In the case of Edwin, Pazmino said, the first thing she did was make sure the family had basic needs. After that, she was able to help Edwin and his siblings — who were also missing school — get academic and mental health help.
“We helped the family with bread, food, transportation, medication costs, et cetera. Once the family stabilized, we tackled Edwin’s education. He was not able to attend in a traditional setting, and through our persistence with the school, we were able to open a 504 that would allow him to receive educational services in a way that kept him safe,” said Pazmino.
For Kelly, the goal was to help her through the birth of her child and then help her with the transition back to school after. Pazmino said they were able to connect her with childcare, to help strengthen the support Kelly was getting within her family and to bridge a communication gap between the district and the family.
“Once we became involved, we realized that there was a disconnect between family and school, and messages were not being received or understood,” said Pazmino.
Kelly is now a straight A student in middle school, Pazmino said. When speaking with the researchers about the program, Kelly met a researcher who had a similar story to her own — arriving to the U.S. as a teenager while pregnant — and was now a doctoral student.
“That ignited something in Kelly. Recognizing that her story doesn’t end here, she has been pushing herself every day,” said Pazmino.
“Connecting in a different way”
Districts have two options for home visitations — they can contract with outside organizations, like Family Centers in Stamford, or they can use their own teachers and support staff to make the visits outside of school hours.
The latter was the approach taken by Hartford Public Schools. The district used the funds to expand the number of staff members in the district that work with families and students, and to match people with specific linguistic skills to the schools with the highest proportion of students speaking a particular language. In Harford, attendance rates increased more than 30 percent for the students who participated.
Nuchette Black-Burke, the chief outreach officer of family and community partnerships at Hartford Public Schools, said home visits allowed the district to reach families at a time and in a space that was better for the families.
“We went out during the evenings, at nighttime, on the weekends, and families were available to us. We were able to connect with them in a different way because they were available and comfortable,” said Black-Burke.
Although many districts are facing staffing shortages, Bridgeport’s Coordinator of Family and Community Engagement, Lynn Stephens, told CT Examiner that her district had to put people on a waiting list because so many staff members wanted to participate in the home visitation program.
“What we found is that staff so much appreciated having the time to engage with families,” said Stephens.
Jacob Werblow, a professor at Central Connecticut State University and one of the researchers evaluating the program, told CT Examiner that the staff members he spoke with said that they were happy to switch from a more “punitive” model of dealing with chronic absence, which they called “exhausting,” to conducting home visits.
“The typical model for students who are chronically absent is a response that is punitive,” said Werblow. “It often comes with a threat that if there’s a certain number of days absent, that family could end up in court.”
“And, and if you think about it, the families that would be likely to have children that would be chronically absent probably need support.”
Finding those “lost in the system”
Data from the study showed that students who received a single home visitation during the 2021-22 school year saw their attendance increase 15 percent compared to the student attendance six months before.
Steve Stemler, a professor at Wesleyan University who worked on the study, did acknowledge that the data may have been affected by COVID, as districts confronted spikes with the disease while the home visitation program was happening. He said that was one reason they hoped to receive funding to continue the program and be able to evaluate it again.
The visits showed the strongest impact on middle school and high school students, which Brittany Libman, a Student Engagement Specialist in Hartford, said may be connected to the fact that older students have more autonomy.
“Older children often are able to set an alarm clock and get themselves to school, while younger children rely on the parents to still get them breakfast and get them ready for school,’ said Libman. “So when we’re able to put in an intervention, whether they get some type of prize or reward for showing improved attendance, the older kids really can take that and kind of switch their own behaviors.”
The data shows that the interventions worked equally well for students in special education and low-income students, and were consistent across race and gender. But it also found that attendance rates for non-English speaking students were less affected by the program.
Pazmino said that this is because these families often face strong obstacles. The students often come from low-income families, and some of them have had little academic experience in their birth countries. Others are special education students that aren’t getting the necessary services.
“We can find a lot of students really lost in the system, and they don’t want to go to school,” she said.
Francisco Baires, who works for the Capitol Region Education Council, told CT Examiner that he believed families who spoke a language other than English needed more than a single home visit to see an impact.
But Andrea Amado, a learning specialist at the Yale School of Medicine who worked on the research, said the families benefited in other ways from the visits, including being able to connect to resources they previously weren’t able to access, and establishing trust with the visitors.
“Overall, they all were in agreement in saying that this was probably the first time that they were able to really understand and make a connection with the school community, because they had language as a way to connect, and have that cultural connection in addition to the linguistic connection,” said Amado.
“This program works. Now, let’s fund it.”
In the Board of Education meeting last week, data showed that while overall chronic absenteeism has risen this year compared to last, the rise is most pronounced in students who are not considered “high needs” — from 12 to 18 percent. The percentage of “high needs” students — those from low-income families, receiving special education or learning English — who are chronically absent has actually decreased slightly, down from 34 percent to 32.4 percent.
Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the chief performance officer for the state Department of Education, said he thought part of the high numbers of absences was due to the “triple-demic” of COVID, flu and RSV that was affecting large numbers of people in the fall and early winter. He noted that, at this point in the year, a student only needed to be absent for six days to be marked as chronically absent.
According to Kari Sullivan Custer, other factors that can affect chronic absenteeism include things like a shortage of available mental health attention, access to housing, lack of childcare for younger siblings and “lingering apathy” toward school in the wake of the pandemic.
Claudia Ocasio, who conducts homes visitations for the Torrington Public Schools, told the state’s Board of Education that she had also seen increases in members of the Hispanic community who were attending community college, an increase in completion of the FAFSA form for financial aid, and an increase in the number of students pursuing trade certifications.
“All of our numbers, they went up because of LEAP,” she said.
Baires told CT Examiner that he’s already working to train other districts in the state who want to participate in the program. He said that districts who want to do a “deeper dive” can contract with CREC to work on strategic planning for the program.
State Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker said at the press conference that one of the motivations for having the program evaluated was to have data that would support its effectiveness and persuade government officials and others to continue funding the program.
Tucker also said that some districts still have coronavirus relief funds, which they could decide to put toward a home visitation program.
“I’m willing to advocate at a state level, at the federal level, and with philanthropy,” said Russell-Tucker. “This program works. Now, let’s fund it.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Ajit Gopalakrishnan serves as chief performance officer for the state Department of Education