Even in this vastly interconnected world, it’s remarkably easy to lose contact with students. Physical and mental health problems suddenly materialize. Students become involved in the juvenile justice system. Families move. Phone numbers change.

School districts lost contact with more students during the COVID-19 pandemic than during any other event in recent history. A 2021 study by Bellwether Education Partnerships estimated that as many as 3 million students — especially those from marginalized populations — went “missing” from school when millions of students were suddenly pushed into a new learning modality in March of 2020.

As a result of the pandemic, school leaders everywhere learned that the structures they had for maintaining a connection to their students were insufficient. Indeed, it’s becoming obvious that robust connectivity can make the difference between keeping students engaged and connected to the support they need and seeing students disappear without a trace.

Building robust connectivity files

Since 2007, Graduation Alliance has worked with hundreds of school districts to locate, re-enroll, re-engage and educate disengaged students. In doing so, we have studied a vast number of student record systems and have explored dozens of approaches to finding, connecting with, and maintaining contact with students.

We’re getting ready to start another school year, and we have no idea what the future holds. One of the best things you can do to prepare for the unknown future is to build robust connectivity files for every student in your district — whether they’re considered at-risk or not. (If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that any student can become at risk.)

These files include:

  1. Name, aliases, and nicknames
  2. Date of birth
  3. Current address
  4. Current phone numbers
  5. Email addresses
  6. Prior places lived
  7. Places where family members live
  8. Community mentors (Coaches, advocates, or religious leaders)
  9. Name and contact information for one or more immediate family members, extended family members, extended family members from a grandparental generation, and close friends
  10. Places of employment
  11. Social media handles
  12. Post-secondary educational goals
  13. Career goals

By building a robust connectivity file for every student, you’ll have more starting points for your search and will be more likely to make gains without ever having to leave your office. (Remember when school administrators were going door-to-door in search of students earlier in the pandemic?)

While locating disengaged students should only be part of your re-engagement strategy, even the best curriculum and pedagogy in the world is useless if students don’t show up for school. So, when it comes to true re-engagement, student location is an essential first step.

Missing in the Margins: Finding Students Who are Falling Through the Cracks

There has been a significant focus over the past two years in the news about students who are “missing” due to the pandemic. However, the students aren’t actually missing — they’re just not showing up to class.

In partnership with seven state departments of education and regional support centers and individual districts in four other states, Graduation Alliance has been instrumental in assisting school districts to locate, contact, and re-enroll students. We have learned why so many students have disengaged with their local school offerings from contacting more than 340,000 students referred to us through these partnerships.

The reasons why students stop showing up for school fall into three broad categories: academic performance issues, access to academic resources, and social-emotional barriers. Obviously, access to resources and social-emotional barriers can have an impact on the academic performance category, so it would be a mistake to think that students fall into only one of these categories.

With that in mind, we discovered there are five obstacles that really stand out in terms of student engagement, and if these can be overcome, there is an excellent chance students will re-engage and get back on track. Nobody is saying it will be easy or fast, but there is at least a roadmap we can follow.