The Blip……Where have all the students gone?

My family and I are big fans of the Marvel movies. In Avengers: Endgame, the villain Thanos is able to gather six stones with special powers. Believing that Earth’s problems stem from overcrowding that causes competition for precious resources, he snaps his fingers and 50% of life on Earth disappears. The remaining 50% call this the Blip.  Being the Executive Director of Promise Academy, a dropout prevention and recovery high school in Cleveland, it sometimes feels like we have experienced a Blip. Our enrollment is down almost 50% since March of 2020. During that time the number of students aged 15-21 in need of an alternative pathway to a high school diploma has grown. This leads to the question, where have all the students gone?

I have long felt that crises like the pandemic do not build character, they reveal it. To that end, organizations with a strong culture and positive relationships with clients will always fare better than organizations whose culture is lacking. Being a person who accepts responsibility for the results of an organization that I lead, I acknowledge our shortcomings and commit myself to improving our results. Still, this feels like something different. A recent NPR article points out that enrollment in New York City dropped 38,000 in 2020 and an additional 13,000 in 2021. Chicago City schools’ enrollment dropped 14,000 in 2020 and an additional 10,000 in 2021. Los Angeles lost 17,000 students in 2020 and an additional 9,000 in 2021.

I do not think that we are anywhere close to answering the question of why these students have left. The answer to that question will likely vary from student to student. I am more concerned about where they are.  The rules governing Community Schools in Ohio require us to drop students from our rolls once they have missed 72 consecutive hours (about 14 days) of instruction. Our efforts to reach out to these students have been met with failure. Phone numbers are no longer active, mailings come back as no longer residing at the address, and even current students that are friends of the missing students do not know where they are—Blip.

Anecdotal research, gathered by the phone calls and meetings that I have with partner organizations, indicate that students aged 15-21 are not just missing from Promise Academy, they are also missing from after school care, social service/counseling agencies, and organizations dedicated to teen welfare. If these students are missing from school and the community organizations that provide needed support, where are they finding support? A quick skim of the headlines reaffirms all of the dangers that can befall a teenager when they lose the social supports that were keeping them on the right track.

Certainly, some of them have found opportunity in the midst of the pandemic. Many are working as many as three jobs and have undoubtedly learned that they can make it without completing high school. Some have found support through their mobile devices, opting to participate remotely in the world. Most, I fear, have deepened their sense of hopelessness and despair, resigning themselves to life on society’s margins.  I cannot help a teenager, or young adult, that is not enrolled in my school. I cannot enroll a student that I cannot find. I think that our best chance is to work together with social service agencies, non-profits, and neighborhood centers to locate and engage former high school students.

Stay tuned for an announcement from Promise Academy regarding an Agency Summit, geared at locating and re-engaging teens and young adults.