While many of the 94,000 students in Denver Public Schools log onto school, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of students who aren’t logging onto learning at all. Many of these students haven’t been in touch with a teacher since schools shut down in March.
It can seem surprising that so many students can disappear from school rosters, but it makes sense when you consider how many students currently face housing uncertainty, are homeless, live in unsafe homes, and face a myriad of challenges.
Schools and the fragmented social services sector have not pivoted quickly enough to support new needs in this crisis and generally lack sufficient resources to support marginalized students. Too often, these students are an afterthought in the political budgeting process as other communities and schools advocate for funding. But Denver, and locales across the nation, can be more nimble and reallocate available services to help vulnerable students.
First, educators and those who work with vulnerable students must become trusted adults in youth’s lives. Disconnected youth work with many teachers, counselors, and social workers, and receive a host of supports, but are often on their own in making decisions. Too often, supports work in contradiction with one another, not in tandem. The same is true for adults: each adult has too large of a caseload and has competing priorities, leaving students effectively unconnected to anyone. If every adult who worked with disconnected youth saw herself as the champion for that student, disconnected youth would be less likely to fall through the cracks.
Second, as budgets tighten, agencies must make sure staff have time to focus on young people. One-fifth of leaders in education, social service agencies, nonprofits, and the juvenile justice system have had their jobs entirely repurposed in response to the pandemic, and leaders reported increasing the amount of time spent on operations (like ensuring access to technology and school supplies) and fewer hours building key relationships with youth and their families. What disconnected students need now more than ever are trusted relationships. We must free up the valuable, yet limited, time of those who dedicate their careers to supporting disconnected youth.
Third, policymakers should use available public dollars to meet the current needs of students. For instance, Colorado allocates $2.75 million for transporting youth in foster care, but the funding is bureaucratic and burdensome, and districts have accessed less than 2% of funding. Given that school is mostly remote, transportation funding simply isn’t needed in the same way. Millions of dollars are sitting quite literally on the table, and policymakers can remove bureaucratic barriers and repurpose how this funding can be used both during and after this pandemic.
By expanding the definition of how state funding can be used and for whom it can serve, policymakers can still meet the ultimate objective to provide Colorado’s nearly 10,000 youth in foster care with critical dollars to tackle critical challenges. Repurposing funding means students could have access to things they need right now, like internet access and devices, books, and supplemental learning materials. That kind of flexibility is the difference between COVID-19 being a challenge or a catastrophe for our most marginal students.