NHPS dropout prevention workers canvassing during the pandemic. Emily Hays | New Haven Independent

New Haven’s public school district plans to partner with 10 community organizations to provide case management and mentorship for students and families in a bid to make sure young people go to class and to curb too-high rates of chronic absenteeism.

New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) Chief of Youth, Family and Community Engagement Gemma Joseph Lumpkin presented that plan to the Board of Education Finance & Operations Committee during the panel’s latest regular meeting online via Zoom. 

Joseph Lumpkin pitched 10 proposed agreements in total. The ed board committee members unanimously recommended approval of all 10, which now head to the full Board of Education for a final review and vote. Joseph Lumpkin said she plans to make a larger presentation about how the district is ​“deepening our family engagements” to the full ed board at a future meeting.

The first cohort of organizations the district has arranged to contract with include Alpha to Omega Management Group’s Brown Girls Cooking and Conversation, Connecticut Violence Intervention Program Inc., Ice the Beef, Arts in CT Corp, Kiyama Movement Inc., Upon this Rock Ministries, S.P.O.R.T Academy, Kids Kraze, Urban Community Alliance and The Monk Center for Academic Enrichment and Performing Arts. (Click here to read more about each program.) 

The 10 partner organizations will work with 840 students. This plan will cost the district more than $800,000 to contract the organizations to expand their scopes of service to include outreach and case management to chronically absent students. The organizations vary in size. Some will work with as few as 20 students each; several will work with at least 100 students each. 

Chief of Youth, Family and Community Engagement Gemma Joseph Lumpkin: “We’re heading in the right direction. We need a lot of support.” THOMAS BREEN PHOTO

The 10 proposed new agreements each describe the goal of the partnership as: ​“The project enables NHPS staff to address other critical student needs, including behavioral and mental health issues, housing, childcare, lack of technology, and other educational needs. Leveraging community partners resources will help bridge the connection needed to address the concerns keeping students from attending school.” 

This proposal comes as New Haven struggles with a pandemic-exacerbated surge in chronic absenteeism. That led to state lawmakers and education leaders calling NHPS to a special meeting to press the district on its absenteeism numbers and how to make sure students go to school.

The state Department of Education reported that NHPS ended last school year with 60.2% (10,852 students) of all students being chronically absent in June 2022. In December 2022, which is not yet at the halfway point of this school year, 45.9% (8,162 students) were chronically absent. The projected number of chronic absences in January 2023 is expected to decline to 39.8% (7,075 students).

“We’re heading in the right direction,” Joseph Lumpkin said during Monday’s committee meeting. ​“We need a lot of support.”

During his state of the city address earlier this week, Mayor Justin Elicker referenced the district’s struggles with and plans to counter chronic absenteeism. He said during that Monday speech: 

“First, as Superintendent Tracey has so rightly said again and again, you cannot teach an empty seat. And when we saw an alarming rate of chronic absenteeism, we took action. New Haven Public Schools has increased staffing, expanded training, and implemented targeted strategies and an evidence-based relational outreach approach to engage students, families, and partners to better understand what their needs are and how we can respond to those needs. And these efforts are paying off. Since June of 2022 until now, we’ve seen a decline in chronic absenteeism by 20 percentage points. Now let’s be clear, we have a long way to go, and NHPS will be expanding outreach with many of our non-profit partners to further this work.”

The strategy of partnering with community organizations came as a suggestion from the Connecticut Department of Education.

The community partners will work with current public school students who have missed 15 or more days of school so far this year. Other partners and NHPS’s dropout prevention team will continue to work on the intervention component of the initiative by engaging with students and families who have six to 14 absences, therefore have not yet reached the 10% threshold that would deem them chronically absent for the 2022 – 2023 school year. 

The community partnerships will be facilitated by the city’s Youth Connect program and the Youth, Family and Community Engagement office. 

The 10 organizations will run their programs for 20 weeks and will cost the district around $30 per student, with each partner working with each student for roughly an hour per week on average. 

“What we know from the research, what we know from recent data is that just one or two contacts with a caring individual, a trusted person can make that difference in increasing students’ outcomes,” Joseph Lumpkin said during Monday’s committee meeting. 

Joseph Lumpkin said that in order for the district to decrease its chronic absenteeism rate it will require ​“everyone standing in solidarity” which in includes connecting with grassroots partners, parents, educators, and central office.

She added that the district is arranging to contract additional community partners to work through an expected ​“spring slump” that is expected annually as the warmer spring weather approaches.

Finance & Operations Committee Chair Matt Wilcox suggested the district compare its most recent data with pre-Covid chronic absenteeism rates.

​“We’re relying heavily on our own experience as well as the research that tells us that when we’re working with community partners that are indigenous to the community with relationships oftentimes already established, it tends to have a powerful impact on students’ attendance,” Joseph Lumpkin said. 

“How is your team going to be monitoring the performance of the vendors in this?” Wilcox asked. 

Joseph Lumpkin responded that the community organizations will be required to report all work materials and plans to the district. NHPS’s Youth, Family and Community Engagement office will also conduct family check-ins to get reviews of their experiences with the community partners. 

Most of this work the district team is doing also includes connecting with families to help address their everyday needs, Joseph Lumpkin said. 

In addition to presenting on the 10 agreements Monday, Joseph Lumpkin updated the committee on key efforts the district has completed to address chronic absenteeism. Those include several recent hires of dropout prevention specialists, increasing that team of workers from around 13 to 20 since December. 

“This helps us to reduce the workload of our specialists so rather than having them work with three or four schools, this allows them to work with about two-and-a-half or three schools,” Joseph Lumpkin said. 

The office has also partnered with the Connecticut’s Capitol Region Education Council, which has trained 150 educators and school staffers through the Learner Engagement Attendance Program. The school-based teams have been trained to be outreach workers to directly help with addressing the district’s high rate of chronic absenteeism through home visits, virtual meetings, and phone calls to build positive relationships with families after school. (Click here to read more about what the district is doing to reduce chronic absenteeism.) 

The district is working toward a goal of decreasing each school’s chronic absenteeism rate by 12%. At the conclusion of this year’s campaign, Joseph Lumpkin said, the district plans to celebrate with a districtwide Attendance Award Ceremony. 

Schools are also arranging additional incentives for students and families by offering field trips and celebrations to increase attendance.

This story was first published Feb. 8, 2023 by the New Haven Independent.