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On eve of Boston Public Schools' first day, one last push to get students to come to school

Dozens of volunteers fanned out across Boston neighborhoods Wednesday morning, hoping to get kids who were largely absent last year back into school.

Part of an annual canvassing event led by the Boston Public Schools’ Re-Engagement Center, the door-knocking effort targets Boston-area high schoolers who dropped out or were chronically absent last school year, meaning they missed at least 18 days of school throughout the entire year.

“Overall, it’s good to go in the community and try to engage these students back — even talk to neighbors and let them know we’re present, we’re looking for the students,” said Angie Encarnacion, the center's manager.

Angie Encarnacion, manager of the Boston Re-engagement Center, visits a home in Jamaica Plain as part of an effort to re-engage student attendance in the new school year. (Suevon Lee/WBUR)
Angie Encarnacion, manager of the Boston Re-engagement Center, visits a home in Jamaica Plain as part of an effort to re-engage student attendance in the new school year. (Suevon Lee/WBUR)

Now in its fifth year, the door-knocking effort occurs on the eve of the first day of school for BPS students, which begins Thursday. It builds off initial efforts to reach households where students simply stopped coming to school.

“We’ve already reached out to them — we’ve sent letters to their houses, we’ve called them. This would be the third attempt at trying to reengage them,” said Encarnacion, of the physical visits.

And not every visit will result in actual contact: for about every 10 households visited, volunteers may only make contact with two, Encarnacion estimates. So while there is mixed success, she said it’s still worth the effort since any outreach — even if it’s speaking to a neighbor — can send the signal to a student that an adult cares.

“Sometimes we don’t get them today, but they’ll trickle in, in the next couple of weeks,” she said. The re-engagement center works to help students complete their high school diploma, enroll in alternative education or work toward a GED.

On Wednesday morning, 42 volunteers targeted neighborhoods in Dorchester, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain with the goal of reaching 300 households. In teams, they headed out by car or on foot, armed with flyers and “door-hangers” promoting school attendance to leave behind in case no one was home.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and acting superintendent Drew Echelson greeted the volunteers with remarks at BPS headquarters in Roxbury before the teams set off.

"Ensuring that every young person in Boston has the ability to access high-quality education, is the highest priority in BPS," Echelson said.

Boston’s chronic absenteeism rate spiked during the pandemic. In the 2016-17 school year, 25% of kids in the district were chronically absent, compared to 13% statewide. By the 2021-22 school year, 42% of BPS students were chronically absent, compared to 27% statewide, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Neil Sullivan, executive director of Boston Private Industry Council, a partner with BPS in this effort, said the reasons can vary as to why a child has missed so much school or why they decided to drop out.

“There’s a lot of things going on in the community and you never know why somebody’s life is disrupted,” he pointed out. “They may be home taking care of a sick parent, there could be all kinds of reasons.”

Boston Public Schools' unofficial enrollment count for this upcoming school year is 50,980, but the actual totals won’t be known until mid-October when schools turn in their “did not report” lists.

School advocates say this year’s re-engagement push is more important than ever because of the pandemic's effect on attendance.

“This definitely is an important year to motivate them, engage them to try to get them back in, bring in the excitement, have them know there’s people out there who want them to be successful and succeed and graduate,” said Encarnacion.

“I think more than ever, they need to feel loved.”

Suevon Lee Twitter Assistant Managing Editor, Education
Suevon Lee leads WBUR's education coverage.

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