I-TEAM: Teens vanishing in record numbers from classroom

Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 6:45 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - After nearly two years of unprecedented losses from lives and jobs to homes and education, the ITEAM found high school students in Augusta are now vanishing from the classrooms in record numbers.

High school seniors struggled to finish school in Augusta-Richmond County, even before the pandemic hit.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, the Richmond County School District holds the second-lowest graduation rate among the nearly 200 public school districts in the state.

Now the ITEAM has uncovered another troubling trend, a record number of high school students are not in school this year. Since the pandemic forced schools to close, high schoolers are missing from the rosters in record numbers. We found 473 are missing from the classroom this year alone.

We don’t know the exact reasons behind the disappearance, but we do know staying in school is harder than ever when teens try to learn from home when they don’t have a home.

We meet Tiffany outside of the Center of Hope homeless shelter on a brisk January morning. She is new here and stops to ask us for directions to school for her children. The shelter is miles away from the schools, and she tells us she plans to get her three children there by bus or by walking.

We learn her kids are nine, ten and 18 years old. We found them waiting nearby on a curb with their bookbags.

The kids are ready for school, but no school bus arrives at the shelter for them. Within a few more days at the shelter, we find out a bus does eventually come to pick up her two younger children but not her high schooler.

Liz: “Are you frustrated?”

Tiffany: “A little.”

Frustrated. Discouraged. Embarrassed. Her daughter Nina feels all the above.

Her school, Glenn Hills High School, transitioned to virtual learning around the same time the family became homeless. Her friends are back in class, but Nina’s seat is still empty. She agrees to text with me.

Nina: “I miss going to school.”

Liz: “Oh I’m sorry. Does your teacher at school know what’s going on with you?”

Nina: “Yes ma’am, they do.”

Liz: “Have they offered either a cab tide to school, bus, tutoring or anything else?”

Nina: “No ma’am.”

Liz: “Is that the reason you are doing virtual? No ride to school?”

Nina: “Yes ma’am.”

Learning at home isn’t easy when there is no home to learn from.

The ITEAM obtained the shelter policy and found it reads: families must checkout by eight o’clock in the morning from the shelter. Tiffany works, so Nina goes to a friend’s house to spend the day until the family can check back into the shelter at four o’clock in the afternoon.

The family rooms are full at night, but the learning center is always dark and empty.

Dr. Gregory Rhodes is the shelter director. We asked him why the learning center isn’t being utilized for students like Nina.

“Well, we haven’t used it. We have been doing virtual tutoring. The parent must sign up for that through the school system, and they will send them a zoom link and tutoring will be provided for them.”

Nina checks out a tablet from the shelter to learn. But usage is limited to shelter hours. Again, the shelter requires Nina to leave by 8 a.m. every day and not to return until 4 p.m. This leaves her with no access to a tablet or technology during school hours when she also has no transportation to get to school.

Liz to Rhodes: “Were you made aware or are you aware when a student staying at the shelter has gone virtual, or do they have to tell you?”

Rhodes: “They have to tell us- we try to keep up with that, but if we don’t know then we don’t know… One thing we make sure the parents are getting the information about the school.”

The information is contained on a different outreach program’s information packet. It’s not in the Center for Hope paperwork but rather in information from the Salvation Army. We found a name and number listed in the Salvation Army’s welcome paperwork.

Dr. Aronica Gloster is the Director of Student Services for Richmond County Schools.

Liz: “Is the Salvation Army under any sort of obligation to let you (the district) know that there are kids there?”

Dr. Gloster: “They will sometimes if they have that release of information, they will share that information. We are in the process of trying to do some closer tracking academically for those students.”

Liz: “There are a lot of missing kids this year and when I looked further into (it), the majority are in high school.”

Dr. Gloster: “Yes.”

Buried in the data, the ITEAM found there are more missing high school kids right now than the previous total of missing students across all grades before the pandemic hit and closed down schools. More than half of the 900 missing students this school year are high school students. That’s nearly 500 teens, only one to three years away from a diploma, vanishing before stepping across the finish line.

Liz: “(Do you) expect your graduation rate to dip more this year?”

Dr. Gloster: “I hope not.”

State education records show high school students are least likely to graduate here than from nearly any other public school district in the state. The ITEAM crunched the numbers and found the Richmond County School System holds the second lowest graduation rate among public school district in Georgia.

Georgia workforce data shows high school dropouts are limited in their career options to jobs such as fast-food workers, store stockers, janitors and maids.

Nina’s mother Tiffany does not have a high school diploma. She has a job working to clean a local hospital for around $11/hour. That is not enough to afford rent in Augusta.

“Our social workers are beating the ground I will say that. Really all school personnel have responsibility they are calling beating the ground trying to identify or trying to locate students.” Explains Dr. Gloster.

School data shows 88 of Nina’s classmates are missing from Glen Hills High School this school year alone.

Hurdles like trying to log in between shelter hours discourage the teen. Tiffany tells us her daughter is thinking about quitting school for the first time. She would be the 89th student to vanish from the roster this year if she quits.

Nina does not quit. The homeless liaison provides them with a gas card. Tiffany gives it to a friend who now drives her daughter to and from school every day.

Social workers in the district are tasked locating missing students, but there are only 18 of them in a district with more than 50,000 students.

This is our second investigation produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 data fellowship. We are not done. We are still digging through documents. Our investigation “Children on the Faultline” will continue.

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