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On a frigid late winter afternoon, three lone students exited the William McKinley Preparatory High School at the end of the school day. Each climbed into one of three waiting yellow school buses — which he occupied entirely on his own.
That’s despite the fact that more than three dozen students were eligible to attend the building in person at the time — a rarity in a school district that until March was functioning almost entirely remotely.
On the average day last month, only about 10 percent of the more than 200 students eligible for in-person learning across McKinley’s three campuses showed up.
The low attendance rates, which have shown only marginal signs of improving in April’s first weeks, speak to the difficulty of compelling students who already disliked school to attend when it’s optional. Even before the pandemic, the neglected school struggled to entice high school students to attend class.
And when you consider the deep distrust many families of color have long felt toward the public schools, it’s not surprising so many students at the McKinley schools have stayed away. About 85 percent of its students at the schools, which serve students with behavioral and emotional issues, are Black and Latino.
“It’s a trust issue for a lot of Black and brown families because of what we’ve seen for decades . . . defunding schools, systemic racism, inequality,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group in Tennessee.
That sentiment is echoed by Boston parent Nicolle Amado. While she loves the teachers at the schools, particularly how they have skillfully related to her son, she kept her seventh-grader home this year from McKinley South End Academy. “I don’t trust the system and didn’t want to take a chance,” she said, referring to the larger school district.
Amado, who is Cape Verdean and identifies as Black, graduated from Boston Latin Academy. She believes her race has affected her son’s access to quality special education services in Boston. Specifically, Amado says her son’s first school ignored her for a year when she requested to have him tested for learning disabilities. He was ultimately diagnosed with dyslexia but even then, she maintains, failed to receive appropriate supports.
Amado also feared the district might not spend the money for supplies and equipment necessary to keep students and teachers safe from COVID. “I have learned that the system does what’s good for its wallet and not students,” she said.
In interviews, 10 McKinley students, teachers, and family advocates mentioned several reasons students have stayed away: “school phobia” developed after years of traumatizing school experiences, such as harsh discipline; needing to quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19; discomfort with the environment, including dilapidated buildings lacking basic amenities; and distrust of a system that, long before the pandemic, failed to meet students’ needs.
A full 66 percent of students at the McKinley schools were chronically absent the year before the pandemic forced schools to close (compared to 25 percent for the Boston school district); 12 percent of students dropped out of school entirely that year.
“Certainly, parents want their kids to go to school,” said Edith Bazile, education advocate and former president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. “By not showing up, it reveals the lack of trust, the lack of relationship, the lack of connection parents and families feel for McKinley.”
District officials point to life circumstances that prevent some McKinley students from attending school in person, including unstable housing and involvement with the criminal justice system. “McKinley staff are in constant contact with all students, their families, or outside agencies to provide supports and identify and address barriers to students attending in-person classes regularly,” wrote district communications director Xavier Andrews in a statement. “We continue to experience an increase in McKinley students attending school in-person.”
In Boston, the district has prioritized throughout the winter a small group of students with “complex needs” for in-person learning. Students attending four specialized programs, including the McKinley schools, have been eligible since November. The district has gradually increased the number of eligible students since the start of 2021, with all elementary and middle schoolers able to return at least part time by March 18.
The three other specialized programs that reopened in November had higher attendance rates: At the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School, where white students make up nearly a quarter of students, around 91 percent of eligible students have been attending in person, according to a Globe analysis of district data.
Last month, 90 percent of eligible Henderson students attended at least two days of school in person — compared to 41 percent at the McKinley schools.
Fourteen-year-old Kevin Lemus is one of dozens of McKinley Middle School students who opted out of in-person learning. Before the pandemic, he dreaded going to school.
“I just got really bored,” said the Roslindale teen. “And the day was so long.”
It felt especially long because the building, located in Boston’s Kenmore neighborhood, has no auditorium or gymnasium, and therefore, no gym class. Lemus spent most of the more than six-hour school day inside the rundown school with the same five students, most of them boys.
“I just felt so fidgety,” said the tall, husky teen, who suffers from depression and anxiety. “Sometimes I would just leave class and go for a walk.”
As a remote learner, he added, “I like to be home and take my dog for a walk outside.”
The McKinley schools were founded in 1978 as a substantially separate program for students diagnosed with “moderate to severe behavioral, psychological and/or emotional issues.”
About 80 percent of the students are male; 42 percent are Black, and 43 percent Latino. A 2019 state audit highlighted Boston’s “disproportionate assignment” of boys of color to emotional impairment programs in Boston public schools, including at the McKinley schools.
Teachers in the program say the pandemic has made their job — convincing students who were already reluctant to come to school — that much harder.
“It’s not like you have to go to school now,” said a teacher who retired from McKinley last September. “When it’s not mandatory, it can take some gumption to get out of bed,” particularly for those who’ve had many negative school experiences.
Some families and advocates say it didn’t help that some students perceive the environment at the McKinley schools as a hostile one. Students pass through metal detectors — and past school police officers — each morning, even with the limited numbers attending during the pandemic. And student outbursts were common. (Teachers report far fewer now that so few students are attending in person.)
“McKinley can be a stressful place,” said Elizabeth McIntyre, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services who represents students with disabilities. McIntyre has represented 49 McKinley students since 2014, and consulted on cases for nearly 200 more. Before COVID-19, McIntyre worked with many of her McKinley clients to help them transfer to schools with more therapeutic services and no police officers on patrol. All of her students who have studied at the McKinley schools during the pandemic have welcomed remote learning, McIntyre says.
At home, students can avoid hearing or seeing things — like a student acting out — that might make them anxious. The students also have a greater sense of control. If a teacher, for example, makes them feel angry, the student can mute the teacher or shut their computer, McIntyre said.
“For my clients who really struggled at McKinley, [remote learning] has alleviated some of those struggles,” she said.
Not all of the McKinley students who have rejected the school’s offer of in-person learning are necessarily showing up online. Since February, 32 percent of McKinley students have been absent from all learning, according to school district figures.
Kevin Lemus is one of those students. He hasn’t logged in more than a couple of times in 2021.
“He doesn’t like going to school,” his mother said recently. “If he liked it, he might do it from home.”
Long before the pandemic, there was talk of closing the McKinley schools, but even critics like Edith Bazile say that would be a mistake. She says the district should take this opportunity to reimagine the schools — with parents and students as guides.
“Parents aren’t going to go out of their way to send their kids to a place that doesn’t value their opinions,” she said. Ultimately, she wonders, “How will the district build trust?”