Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Truth About All Those ‘Missing’ Students

Let’s unpack the trending topic of declining school enrollment and “missing” students. There are several theories that have been put forward: blame for homeschooling, charter and private schools and the problematic worry that “vulnerable students” could have fallen through the cracks during the pandemic. 

Are there students who really want to get to school but simply cannot get there because they are stranded somewhere (fallen through the cracks)? Sure. But if we truly understand that there are students in such overwhelming circumstances, our reaction is shamefully inadequate. 

While this explanation may be true for some, these students don’t comprise the bulk of the “missing.” That group may not want to be found.

Among the still “missing” are students who left for private, charter, or homeschool alternatives. A recent NPR article highlighted  families that show that it is not their vulnerabilities that drove that choice, but rather the feeling that their local public school was “boring” and unresponsive. The article details private and parochial schools discounting tuition and charter schools making extra efforts to reach out and support families, meeting student needs and showing them that they belong.

Many teachers and traditional district schools also made these efforts, but the overall enrollment declines across public schools paint a grim picture of how disengaging and isolating the experiences at many of our schools must be. 

Many “missing” students experienced the pandemic as an opportunity to opt out of a dead-end, oppressive experience. They got jobs in the gig economy or other places and are making ends meet as best they can, relying on the resilience and personal strengths that enabled them to go to a school they hated every day and still make it work. 

What Can “Missing” Students Teach Us?

First, students are people—not funding. 

Focusing on what enrollment declines “cost” public schools values students solely for their contribution to funding formulas. Remember, students are people with opinions and agency, and they are the experts on their school experiences. Let’s have less hand-wringing about what missing students cost us and more voices of students about their experiences in our schools. Otherwise, children will continue to chafe at their experiences until they can figure out how to leave.

Let’s learn from schools that are getting it right. Responsive schools, like oppressive ones, are present in every school type. There are many responsive and engaging public schools, but the enrollment decline suggests that many more are not. 

Likewise, some charter schools are unresponsive even though the data shows many more which students and families experience as engaging. Sectarian, parochial, and home school experiences vary widely as well. Let’s get serious about learning what schools are doing that help students to flourish and doing that more often. Those approaches are built on relationships and structures not funding methods and school types. 

Let’s acknowledge structural racism and start to dismantle it in our schools. The movement against critical race theory is simply the latest iteration of white backlash that emerges any time equity has a chance. 

It continues the massive resistance to Brown that has largely precluded realization of the clear recognition that separation is inherently unequal and unconstitutional. We still say we believe that, but our schools are as segregated as ever. 

White backlash cloaked in opposition to critical race theory is just the latest effort to keep us from talking about it, but if we really think our schools are NOT structurally designed to maintain segregation and inequity based on race, then the only remaining explanation is that we, white people ourselves, are incredibly, intentionally, and irredeemably racist people. Of course, unfortunately, both are true. 

Let’s tackle our racist history head on, beginning by asking “missing” students what school is like for them. Then let’s listen—really listen—to their responses and begin to change our practices. 

Let’s give students a voice and let them share their experiences with each other. We wouldn’t need adults to structure privilege walks to raise awareness of white supremacy if they enabled students to honestly and completely talk about their experiences with each other. Adults in schools need to structure and open these conversations and help students learn how to navigate them even when they are difficult. 

This is simple to say but not to do. It will take generations to undo our intentional caste system. But we have to start somewhere. Public education is where we work out what kind of community we want to live in. It’s where future generations decide for themselves what America will be. The time to start is long past, but perhaps starting with the “missing students” can put us on a path to becoming what we want to believe we are but unfortunately have never been.

Alan Coverstone
Alan Coverstone has nearly 30 years of experience working in education and has served as a school administrator, Executive Innovation Officer in a large, urban school district, University Education Department Chair, grant maker, educational nonprofit Board Chair, elected school board member and is now an Education Consultant. Alan holds an Ed.D. from the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University and a BA in Speech Communication from Wake Forest University. He lives in Fairfax, VA with his partner, Laura and near his two grown sons, Mitchell and Mason.


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