Courtesy of Sylvan Lebrun

On Tuesday, the New Haven Public Schools’ Office of Youth, Family and Community Engagement held a kickoff and canvass event for its A.C.E. campaign, which seeks to address the needs of chronically absent students during remote learning.

As of last week, 619 NHPS students — around three percent of the total student population — have not logged on to a single online class this school year. The A.C.E. campaign, which stands for “Attend, Connect, Engage” will involve door-to-door canvassing by volunteers in order to reach the families of these absent students. The goal of the campaign is to identify the root problems causing these absences and provide children with the resources they need to attend classes.

About 30 people, including NHPS officials, parent volunteers and community health organizers, gathered at 130 Orchard Street on Tuesday for the first of these canvass efforts after a brief kickoff event. The second canvass will take place this Thursday.

“We want to get the message out to the community, first of all, that we are here to support them,” said Gemma Joseph Lumpkin, NHPS chief of youth, family and community engagement, in an interview with the News at Tuesday’s event. “Then we want to knock on a few doors and to let families know that we are here. We need to understand specifically what their concerns are, so that we can address them.” 

The campaign’s kickoff on Tuesday consisted of a brief press conference, at which Joseph Lumpkin and Paul Whyte ’93, NHPS instructional superintendent, spoke to the volunteers about the importance of community engagement to combat this wave of absentee students. Local radio station 94.3 WYBC had a booth set up to play music throughout the event. Then, NHPS officials were paired with the volunteers and departed to begin canvassing door-to-door. Volunteers were provided with N-95 masks and told to maintain social distancing while canvassing. 

At the event, Whyte told the News that the A.C.E. campaign is a continuation of the district’s efforts to improve school engagement during the pandemic. Since NHPS schools went into an entirely online model after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, district officials have attempted to get electronic devices into the hands of all students. They have also worked with Comcast to improve internet connectivity for families in need. 

Since the spring, NHPS officials have been using emails and robocalls throughout the pandemic to reach out to families of absent students. However, even with these efforts, Whyte said that there are still families that have remained completely unreachable. He told the News he believes that the face-to-face contact involved with the A.C.E. canvassing efforts will be more effective for connecting with these families and understanding their individual needs. 

“We send things through email, we try to text, but all of that requires having a good number to contact someone at,” Whyte told the News. “We end up getting further and further detached from some students. So even during this time of the pandemic, we need to have some face-to-face contact — not too close — but still some contact, so that these families know that we care.”

NHPS Parent Engagement Coordinator Daniel Diaz reiterated Whyte’s point that the A.C.E. campaign is a continuation of pre-existing community engagement efforts in an interview with the News.

Diaz said that in a typical year, the city hosts an in-person “Back-to-School” rally in August and a “Kindergarten canvass” at the beginning of the school year to welcome new NHPS students. Due to the pandemic, these traditional events were conducted in-person but social distancing protocols were strictly enforced.

For example, the “Back-to-School” rally was conducted at five different schools, instead of at one, and families were asked to stay in their cars. The “Kindergarten canvass” occurred but volunteers were required to stay at least six feet away from families. Parents who wanted to request school materials such as books, health vaccination forms and book bags were asked to do so before community members knocked on doors. 

Diaz said that an estimated 48 community volunteers signed up to canvass on Tuesday or Thursday. He said he was excited by the enthusiastic community response the district received after advertising a sign-up form last week.

“The community has really stepped up to the plate and is supporting us in this campaign from the mayor’s office all the way down to some of the community members,” said Diaz. “For people to step into this campaign, I think is fantastic, [especially] during the time of COVID when nobody wants to leave their home.”

Volunteers at Tuesday’s event included parents of New Haven students and about five health workers from Clifford Beers, a children’s mental health clinic in New Haven. 

Leslie Brown, who is both a New Haven parent and Clifford Beers community health organizer, spoke to the News about her concerns regarding the increased absenteeism during the pandemic, emphasizing the importance of face-to-face communication with struggling families. 

“I’m really passionate about making sure that children are getting all the services that they need,” Brown told the News. “It hurts to know that there’s some kinds of barriers that we don’t know about, that are causing all these children to not be able to get what they deserve and engage in school. This is the best way to do it, get on the road and get to them directly.”

All public schools in New Haven have been fully remote since the start of the school year. 

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

Sylvan Lebrun | sylvan.lebrun@yale.edu