Irving – In the not so distant past, when an Irving ISD staffer arrived at a student’s home, they were investigating a truancy situation. How things have changed. While attendance and dropout prevention measures are occurring, home visits altered significantly, thanks in large part to COVID-19.
With 47 percent of district students working from home, challenges revolve around a number of issues, from dealing with skittish technology to students having difficulty absorbing information from a computer screen or iPad.
So each week, members of the Irving ISD Campus Operations team blanket the city, visiting as many as 20 homes each within a day from a roster of 40 to 60 students. Since starting this initiative, the Home Visit Blitz, Irving ISD has knocked on the doors of well over 800 families, doing everything from fixing technical glitches or replacing devices to giving much-needed encouragement. Lately they have been arriving with something extra: bags of groceries.
“With COVID, we are doing school in a whole different way that’s really stretching everyone involved,” Michael Crotty, an administrative attendance manager, said. “We are doing school through computers and laptops, and sometimes [the students] don’t have functioning hotspots or Wi-Fi. One family we met had seven kids, and they were all using the same hotspot. Not good.”
The team is often tasked with replacing non-functioning equipment like an iPad or Chromebook, or simply switching them out when one is more desirable than the other.
“I just don’t like using that [iPad],” Savannah, a seventh grader from Sam Houston Middle School, said.
Crotty said they must brace for anything and everything during the visits, partly because most parents are themselves struggling with keeping the family together. He said they run into family dynamics where middle school students are responsible for their brothers or sisters in elementary school while trying to get their own work done.
“Parents being teacher while trying to feed the family and be mom and dad, it adds a new layer of responsibility,” Crotty said. “Sometimes we coach them and help them figure out how to navigate all this.”
Irving ISD communications and marketing chief Nicole Mansell said a team once went to a home with no electricity, which explained why the students had not logged on for days. The district worked with a nonprofit to get the electricity turned back on.
When it was clear that another family did not have groceries, one of the operations administrators, Ken Jenkins, departed, returning with food he bought with his own money. Now the Education Foundation and Food Banks at Austin and Bowie middle schools help provide about 150 bags of food weekly, which team members place in their cars before heading out.
“This isn’t we miss you, why aren’t you coming to school?” Mansell said. “It’s also meeting their needs. What else can we do to make you successful? This has morphed into this really fantastic initiative for our district. It’s more than attendance. It’s about hearts and minds.”
There are a lot of hearts and minds to deal with and not just students. Jenkins keeps track of the grades and attendance of 60 students, which means he speaks to teachers, counselors, principals, attendance clerks, and data clerks about students from different grade levels.
“And parents, too,” Jenkins said. “It’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of checks and balances. The good thing is that it creates good relationships. Doing it this way, the community and the school become closer. It’s not always we’re the enemy after a couple of visitations. We become partners. They know we’re just trying to bridge the gab.”
Savannah, the student who no longer wanted the iPad, mentioned to the team that she wants to return to in-classroom instruction. When students express interests in returning to school, the team alerts the principal, who then sets in motion whatever safety guidelines are needed to fit the current protocol of a socially distanced classroom. Savannah’s was concerned that she had no ride home from school since her mother works in the afternoons.
“As soon as we get back, we’ll look into setting up a situation where she can get transportation,” attendance officer Norma Jimenez said.
During the visits, Jimenez worked as part fixer and part chief encourager, making sure she fully understands a family’s needs and encouraging them to stay afloat despite the unusual challenges.
When Jimenez, who has three school-aged children, met with another seventh grader, Hugo, she spent several minutes discussing his grades and attendance, both of which have shot up.
“One of your teachers emailed me last night saying you had turned in a lot of your assignments, and he was so happy that you took the initiative to email him,” Jimenez told Hugo. “You are seeing so much improvement.”
It was easy to see that, although hidden by a mask, Hugo was flashing a big smile.