‘We relentlessly care’: Home visitors urge Bridgeport youth back to school

BRIDGEPORT — Three in 10 Bridgeport students were chronically absent last school year, according to state data. Now, door-knockers are going house-to-house to reconnect with them.

The team, composed of Park City locals, visit families where they are, and focus on students not in trouble with the district but identified as needing extra support.

“They’re that friendly, familiar face that shows up, saying ‘I’ve been in your shoes,’ ‘I’ve had this experience,’” said Molly Durand, who oversees the home visitors from RYASAP, a youth nonprofit.

The local push is part of a statewide program focused on learner engagement and attendance, an investment of $10.7 million in pandemic aid. Last spring, 15 school districts were selected for the funds, based on attendance data and other measures of need. Other districts involved in the program include Danbury, New Haven, Stamford and Torrington.

Student absences are often an indicator of underlying issues, Durand suggested - from trouble at home or with mental health, to broken communication between schools and families.

“Attendance is a small part of the program,” said Durand. “That’s what we see, what we notice.”

A need for a plan

Carli Rocha-Raes, a former school counselor, was not surprised the past two years had taken a toll on student attendance and their feelings toward school.

“We knew that the relationship between schools and families was impacted by the pandemic,” said Rocha-Raes, who now oversees counseling and parent partnerships for the district.

The data supported that conclusion: 29 percent of Bridgeport students missed 10 percent or more of available days last school year, according to state data. Before the pandemic, on average 19 percent of students had been missing school, dating back almost a decade.

Students were also struggling to stay engaged with school. Kids in grades 3 through 8 self-reported a 5 percent decline in academic engagement over last school year, according to school climate survey results. Students were also asked about their sense of belonging, which dropped 10 percent from fall to spring.

With the problem identified, it was time to work for a solution.

Rocha-Raes engaged RYASAP to brainstorm ways to get ahead of the situation. When the statewide program was introduced, she, executive director Marc Donald and their teams drafted a plan: The district refers students who were chronically absent to RYASAP, which then sends young adults from the community — representatives through its Public Allies AmeriCorps program — to connect with the families.

The Public Allies do outreach via phone, text and email, or old-fashioned door-knocking. That could involve incentives, like Halloween candy around the holiday or “social-emotional learning bags” that include coloring books, journals and crayons. Bridgeport also has plans to advertise the program on billboards along I-95.

The goal is to form individual relationships and ask families what they need to be successful, whether that’s in public education or alternative career paths.

“There’s been some bumps with some of the reception at the door,” Donald said of the initial home visits, which began about two weeks ago. But the home visitors, he said, have been trained to respond with empathy and emotional intelligence “on the fly.”

“A lot of it is ensuring the parent sees them as a resource, and someone who wants to help them with their young person,” he said.

The home visitors do not follow a script, their supervisors said, and instead respond to the specific hurdles that families face. These could be things such as understanding bus times, breaking down language barriers and connecting families with online resources like Move This World, a social-emotional learning tool, and Power School, a district portal.

“What we have going for us is we relentlessly care,” said Durand. “We’re not going to give up the first time someone says ‘I’m not interested.’”

Durand and her home-visits team, then, refer the families back to the district’s student success teams, and can collect and analyze data.

Early results

Based on initial outreach, district staff and their partners have started thinking about what may be keeping these students from attending and engaging with school.

Donald suggested some older male students may have taken jobs while classes were flexible and online and entry-level wages increased, while students in earlier grades have run into their own set of difficulties.

“Some of the younger people never really engaged, or struggled with engagement, during the pandemic,” he said. This could be most extreme for the earliest grades who have spent little of their education careers in person.

“So there’s no real connection with the school or schooling,” he said.

And after three school years heavily impacted by the pandemic, students of all ages have needed to adjust to seismic changes, and make up for lost classroom instruction time and face-to-face interactions with teachers and support staff.

“There’s a little bit of the ‘How am I going to catch up with all the time I missed?’” Donald said.

But district administrators added these early conversations are not only about figuring out what kept students from school, but also helping to form relationships and understanding family situations for long-term impact.

“It’s about helping families presently and identifying whatever barriers they’re facing,” said Lynn Stephens, the school district coordinator of family and community engagement. “But it’s also informing us how to move forward.”