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‘Here’s how school is going to help you’: Boston Public Schools team knocks on doors, encourages students to return

Emmanuel Allen, director of the Boston Public Schools Re-Engagement Center. BPS volunteers canvassed in several Boston neighborhoods Wednesday to encourage students to return to school. The Office of Secondary Schools, in conjunction with the Re-Engagement Center, knocked on doors in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain as part of an effort to recover students who may have dropped out of school or who are chronically absent.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Volunteers equipped with flyers, maps, and other resources fanned out across Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain Wednesday morning, visiting more than 400 homes of school-aged children who are not enrolled ahead of the first day of school on Thursday.

The Boston Public Schools Office of Secondary Schools and the Re-Engagement Center — a program that helps disconnected students re-enroll — organized a group of volunteers to visit homes of students who have dropped out or are chronically absent to welcome them back to school and get them on track.

Mayor Michelle Wu kicked off the canvassing event along with BPS Acting Superintendent Dr. Drew Echelson at the Bruce C. Bolling Building in Roxbury, where they emphasized the importance of education and community.

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“Education goes beyond just having a teacher in front of students in a classroom. It is about connection, it is about community, and that is what we are showing today,” Wu said.

Neil Sullivan, the executive director of Boston Private Industry Council, which partners with the BPS Re-Engagement Center, said this was the fifth annual “Dropout Outreach Day” where volunteers went door to door.

The center re-enrolls more than 300 dropouts each year, according to its website. Enrollment in Massachusetts public schools has fallen about 4 percent — or roughly 37,000 students — since fall 2019, in part due to the pandemic, according to prior Globe reporting.

After a training on communication and safety, volunteers went out, searched for addresses, knocked on doors, and waited. When people answered, each volunteer followed a script asking if the student in question was available and then if and where they graduated from high school. If they hadn’t graduated, they were given resources to follow up in case they wanted to continue their education.

Volunteers received instructions at the Bruce C. Bolling Building before taking part in a Boston Public Schools canvassing event Wednesday to encourage students to return to school. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Emmanuel Allen, director of the BPS Re-Engagement Center and a former high school dropout, led one of the groups around the city. He made sure to foster an environment of no judgment when speaking with students and their families.

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“Never judgment,” Allen said, while waiting for someone to answer a door on Dale Street in Roxbury. “It’s really just hearing them out and then asking them what their goals are. It’s kind of connecting all those dots like, ‘Here’s how school is going to help you do that thing you said you want to do.’”

More than 29 percent — or over 250,000 — of Massachusetts public school students were chronically absent last school year, numbers that increased with the pandemic, according to prior Globe reporting.

Allen said when asking students and their families why they’re disconnected from school, it’s best not to assume anything. Sometimes students are disengaged academically, but it could also be caused by circumstances in their personal lives, he said.

“When I was a a kid on the street, literally in this neighborhood where I grew up, when you’re walking through the neighborhood during school time and you look like a student, the adults give you this kind of side eye, like, ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’” Allen said. “Sometimes they say it, sometimes they just look at you, but you know that feeling. We definitely don’t want to create that [feeling].”

If the student and family accept assistance from the Re-Engagement Center, they make an appointment to meet and have a conversation, do a transcript audit, and determine what resources are needed, Allen said.

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Next steps may include enrollment in traditional school, alternative school, or obtaining a Graduate Equivalency Degree.

“Most of the staff are like me — I’m a former high school dropout who dropped out of school and got back in,” Allen said. “We all have a struggle story like that. So we’ll start with that and sort of connect.”

On Winthrop Street in Roxbury, Allen’s team walked up the steps and rang the doorbell at the home of a teenage girl who was not enrolled in school.

“We met a young lady and her mother who they said they were in process of trying to reconnect, but they weren’t exactly clear,” Allen said. “So we just offered them services, and we’re gonna sit down with that young lady and help her make sure she’s connected to something.”

During the Orange Line shutdown that is set to continue through Sept. 18, city officials are working to accommodate students who would normally rely on the MBTA to get to class.

On Aug. 23, Mayor Wu announced that additional transportation will be provided, per an agreement between BPS, the city, and the district’s bus driver’s union, according to prior Globe reporting.

BPS also provided 5,000 pre-loaded CharlieCards with free seven-day passes and announced that students who arrive to school late while the shutdown is in place will not be penalized.

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Bailey Allen can be reached at bailey.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @baileyaallen.