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RPS works to help chronically absent students graduate

A person wearing black robes is handed a piece of paper as several people clap
Mandy Lawrence
Courtesy of ChallengeU
Taylor Robinson attends a ceremony celebrating her completion of the ChallengeU recovery program. Robinson graduated high school and now attend community college.

The district used some pandemic relief funds to increase outreach to students who stop attending classes.

In 2018, Taylor Robinson’s older brother was shot and killed. The loss made it difficult for Robinson, who was in eighth grade at Richmond’s Thomas H. Henderson Middle School at the time, to focus on her schoolwork. She said she’d always had depression — but developed more anxiety and paranoia after her brother’s death.

“It was very hard to maintain going to school while being sad all the time,” Robinson told VPM News. “At the time, I wasn’t processing it. So, it was just hard to be around people.”

Then in 2019, she lost her grandparents — which made consistently going to school even harder. Robinson said her grandmother had pushed her to keep going to school after her brother died.

“She always encouraged me to go to school, to get my education and do good things in life,” Robinson said. “She’s the reason why I was going to school.”

Robinson said she actually enjoyed learning virtually once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She said it was nice being able to attend classes from home. But in January 2022 — after she’d turned 18 in December — Robinson stopped going to school.

It was the middle of her senior year.

Like many districts across the country, Richmond Public Schools has struggled with chronic student absenteeism throughout the pandemic.

When a resource coordinator at Robinson’s high school called and told her about a program that could help her graduate, it was a turning point. She wanted to prove family members wrong for telling her she’d dropped out of school.

“No, I didn’t drop out,” Robinson said. “Just moving on to a different plan.”

Robinson got connected with Bria Jacobs, a graduation coach with the Richmond-based company ChallengeU. Richmond Public Schools used about $181,000 in federal pandemic relief funds to contract with the company for a pilot year starting in 2021.

The school district passed along the transcripts of students like Robinson who’d stopped attending classes, as well as contact information for students or their parents. Then, Jacobs would reach out to students and try to gauge their feelings about going back to school. Finally, she’d offer up a plan of how she could help get them back on track to graduate.

“I’m reaching out to them with the notion that, ‘Hey, we already have a plan in place. We just need you to say yes,’” Jacobs said. “And I think having that plan — by giving them a vision of what it looks like on a day-to-day, as opposed to just saying, ‘Hey, we just want you to graduate’ — I feel like there’s more of a buy-in because it’s more tangible for students.”

Once Jacobs told Robinson she could still realistically walk across the stage in June if she completed her work on time, Robinson said it was like a lightbulb went off in her mind.

“I think that's what happens with a majority of our students. We can push and push and push, but there has to be that moment where the switch is flipped. And they're like, ‘OK, I'm starting to see what they're trying to tell me. I'm starting to change my mindset to fit the mindset that they’ve been trying to help me develop over time,’” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said Robinson was able to complete four classes in a couple of months, which she said normally takes much longer than that. Getting across the finish line required a lot of sleepless nights, which Robinson said were worth it. She took her classes online using a platform called Edgenuity.

Robinson said sometimes at 3 a.m. she’d be up working and would want to take a break, but would then think of her grandmother.

“I was like, ‘Well, I know she would be proud of me if I graduated,’” Robinson said. “So, that was my main motivation. And my grandpa and my brother. I just keep thinking of them and I’m like, ‘Well, if I graduate they’re going to be proud of me.’”

Robinson was able to graduate high school and is now taking classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. She plans to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University’s social work program because she wants to help students like her — who struggle with depression and anxiety.

Before Robinson graduated from high school, Jacobs said she’d meet with her at least twice a week. Sometimes, Robinson said just talking to Jacobs on the phone would help her calm down — especially when she’d get overwhelmed with work. Now, Jacobs still meets with Robinson as she adjusts to college, but not as frequently.

“There's a really big difference between how you engage in high school versus how you engage in college. … So, we kind of want to be that middleman,” Jacobs said. “But at the same time, we recognize that it would be way more beneficial for us to get them to the point of self-sufficiency. Because the reality is they are more than capable of being able to do that.”

ChallengeU CEO Nicolas Arsenault said Jacobs was one of two coaches who worked with 19 RPS students last year. He said eight of those students were seniors – five of whom graduated in June.

“The needs of those kids are very, very high, “Arsenault said. “So that's why having achieved a 60% graduation rate for us was tremendous.”

RPS did not renew its contract with ChallengeU in 2022. Chief Engagement Officer Shadae Harris told VPM News in an interview she didn’t feel comfortable answering questions about the company because they were no longer an existing partner.

Devin Canaday, associate director of family and community engagement, said the school district had already been using Edgenuity before working with ChallengeU. But he said the pilot with ChallengeU helped RPS see how it could better utilize the platform for students across the division.

Harris said RPS also used some of its COVID-19 relief funds to hire three dropout recovery specialists and add five additional family liaisons. According to Harris, staff in those roles help prevent students from dropping out and help them recover if they stop attending classes.

“A big bulk of the role of the liaison is to share information that's linked to learning and that's a key part of their role,” Harris said.

“Research shows us that families a lot of times think the number of days their kids have missed is much less than what it really is. They also think that they're doing better academically than they probably are.”

Harris said this is the first school year in which every school leader had to come up with engagement plans around decreasing chronic absenteeism, increasing family communication and supporting family advocacy.

“Because it's not just about finding kids and bringing them back if we're not bringing them back to a rich learning environment, to alternative pathways, and to people who genuinely have caring relationships for them,” Harris said. “So, to us, that’s just as important.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.