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School is back in session in LA. Where are the students?


School is back in session in much of the U.S. or soon will be. In Los Angeles, the second-largest school district in the country, students went back for their first day this past Monday. It was the first start to the school year that felt like the pre-pandemic normal, which is to say with all students expected to return full time to in-person classes, except that they didn't all show up. Nearly 50,000 students, or about 11%, missed the first day this year, according to school officials. Alberto Carvalho is the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and he has been personally calling families and knocking on doors to find out why so many students were absent. We called him in Los Angeles to ask him what he's learning. Alberto Carvalho, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thanks for joining us.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Thank you. Always great to chat with you.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you've been personally reaching out to students who were absent. Have you been able to get in touch with any of them? Were - are you learning anything?

CARVALHO: We are. So I actually began this process alongside my leadership team last year when we were already experiencing chronic absenteeism on the part of many students, particularly the fragile kids - kids of color, kids in poverty, kids experiencing homelessness or foster care. And then obviously, we intensified our efforts throughout the summer, continuing to track and engage with those students. And then in advance of this school year, we had hundreds of our colleagues going through lists on a priority basis with students who were deemed as being chronically absent. That means they lost at least 10% of the educational days in the previous year.

But the remarkable thing is we were knocking on doors of students that had been enrolled in LAUSD. We came across other students by referral of the parents of the students who were absent who told us that in that same building, on that same street, there were students who had never been in school. And these are the truly lost children of Los Angeles.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, let me just mention here that this was your first first day of school with LAUSD, the Los Angeles Unified School District. You joined the district toward the end of the last school year after many years with the Miami-Dade School District in Florida. Were you expecting to see so many students missing? Do you think that this is an issue that is specific to Los Angeles, or is this something that you think you might have seen in Miami?

CARVALHO: I think that this is a condition, a phenomenon, of unprecedented scale, but it's not unique to Los Angeles. In Miami, Chicago, New York - not only urban areas, also suburban areas and even rural areas, but disproportionately an urban problem. Even when you account for students who left the traditional public school systems to charter networks or to private schools or into home-schooling, there is still a significant gap that no one has been able to truly quantify exactly or understand the destination point for these students.

Now, based on our exercise of knocking on doors here in Los Angeles, we are beginning to be able to, you know, put the pieces of the puzzle together. So we know for a fact many of them were children of immigrant families who, during the pandemic, lost their jobs. They were not able to receive government assistance, and they just left altogether. Secondly, these are individuals who, during that same time period, came in as immigrants, many of them unaccompanied, high school-age students - 15, 16, 17. I've met many of them. They entered the workforce directly. They never made a stop at school. Again, fears of immigration have kept a lot of kids at home. Those are particularly pre-K, kindergarten, first graders. So on both ends of the spectrum, we have a problem.

Now, this year, we have reached already a 91.8% attendance level, but that's for the students that were enrolled and are showing up consistently. We still have about 20,000 at this point - 20,000 or so students who were enrolled or were expected to be enrolled but have not shown up at least for one single day. That's where we're targeting our attention. That's where the calls are intensifying. That's where the knocks on doors and wellness checks are taking place as we speak. And again, that's something that I myself as superintendent, every member of my team, is responsible for.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I mean, that's a really scary number because that has all kinds of implications, which nobody knows better than you and your fellow educators - I mean, implications for learning loss and implications for just discouragement, you know? I mean, you lose a lot of school. You walk into a classroom. You don't feel like you know what's going on. It makes it that much easier to walk right back out if you can, right?


MARTIN: It has implications for school funding. It has implications for people having an attachment to education. It just seems really big. And I'm just wondering, what are some of the things, besides trying to just get people back in the buildings, you're thinking about to tackle this?

CARVALHO: So before I even go there, let me just paint three dimensions of the problem, just to demonstrate how much worse it gets. Schools are where fragile kids living in fragile condition get their breakfast and lunch. It's where they get their health screening. It's where we detect mental health issues, social, emotional stress and trauma. It's often where we detect abuse, right? So these children who are in the shadows of our school systems because they're not attending, they are suffering through a level of vulnerability that is really unacceptable.

And our message is simple, no questions asked. Bring your child to school. We will protect them. We will support them. We'll teach them. We'll feed them. If there was ever a time in America where this is a crisis-level moment, this is now. Not only do we have the lost children of America who have never reported back to school, compounded by a teacher shortage, compounded by a bus driver shortage - and that's the reality facing public education today in our country.

MARTIN: Well, so let's talk about that teacher shortage. This is definitely something that isn't just happening in Los Angeles. We've been hearing reports, you know, from all over the country in all kinds of school districts about teachers leaving, teachers being discouraged and burnt out. When you took over the district last year, you filled some of the gaps by putting nonteaching staff into classrooms. What's the situation this year?

CARVALHO: Vastly improved. So we learned a lot last year. When I arrived here, there were over 900 vacant positions as we entered the last quarter of the school year - unacceptable. So we mobilized individuals who had been teachers, who were coordinators, and we were able to finish the year. Then we began to recruit heavily. So we were able to open this year with zero teacher vacancies - truly an amazing feat. But I'm still concerned. The rate of retirements, obviously - the aging of the teacher workforce across America is on the incline. And you know the story. Teachers are under-resourced. They're often disrespected. They are scapegoated for a lot. Look at the cost of living in Miami, the cost of living in Los Angeles. So we need to solve for this.

MARTIN: That is Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District. Mr. Carvalho, thanks so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll talk again.

CARVALHO: Thank you very much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.