SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — On a nearly triple-digit day in early September, Laurie Butler and Elisa Olmo donned masks, face shields and comfortable walking shoes and took to the streets of North Sacramento. In their hands: files on the students who had not logged on for distance learning or responded to the school’s efforts to contact them.

Lesson plans across California lean on modern technology for distance learning but when that “Plan A” fails, Robla School District in Sacramento gets back to basics with old school, in-person intervention. It is striving to not lose students in the shuffle, even if that means finding them one at a time.

Laurie Butler and Elisa Olmo attempting to get a current address for students (KTXL Photo)
Laurie Butler and Elisa Olmo attempting to get a current address for students (KTXL Photo)

The school district calls its program of pounding the pavement during a pandemic, Student Find. It starts first with teachers who are responsible for reaching out to students who have been inconsistent or non-existent in online classrooms. The teachers keep track of when and how they reach out to students and families. If unsuccessful, they escalate the matter to school principals and office staff. From there, if administrators don’t get results from a distance, they put district social workers on the case in person.

At the first house, looking for a pair of siblings, Butler and Olmo instead encountered a relative who said the children were living somewhere else. However, he was not sure of the address.

“We’re back to square one with this family, but we’ll keep trying,” says Butler, who has been working with underserved students for decades.

This is common, say the social workers. In a district where 20% of students are considered homeless, tracking down absent kids is rarely easy. But the way they see it, the deck is already stacked against the students of this Northern Sacramento community. Ninety percent of Robla kids live under the federal poverty level, so the stakes are too high not to make every effort.

“My concern is these students will get lost in the shuffle,” Butler worries.

Laurie Butler identifying herself as she tries to search for a student (KTXL Photo)
Laurie Butler identifying herself as she tries to search for a student (KTXL Photo)

At the second address, the residents claimed they did not know the student Butler and Olmo were trying to track down. However, at the third address, they finally had some luck.

“We were real concerned about **** because she hasn’t been online,” Butler calls to the parent who answers the door.

In Butler’s experience, the problem for many families is having someone to ensure students are logging on and staying engaged.

“A lot of those families, the parents were working and they either worked at night and slept during the day,” she recalls.

Butler and Olmo carry referrals with them for anything from technical support, to school supplies, to a city-run program that hosts students for supervised distance learning at public facilities.

Building relationships, measuring success

The Student Find program aims to provide individualized outreach but whether it is effective remains to be seen, according to superintendent Ruben Reyes. The small district has not yet compiled comparative data to determine whether the program is helping with retrieval and retention. However, the tight-knit district of solely elementary school students has long relied on the power of personal relationships between staff and families.

Superintendent Ruben Reyes (KTXL Photo)
Superintendent Ruben Reyes (KTXL Photo)

“That connection is what will make a child who isn’t getting a lot of supervision get out of bed and sit down at the Zoom,” Reyes says.

But, could this level of follow-up and intervention work outside their small bubble of five schools and 2,000 students?

“My teachers are able to check in 3-4 times a day about the participation,” Reyes says. “I don’t know that would be possible in a high school situation.”

Still, Reyes thinks there’s something any educator can take away from the Robla approach: involve everyone, from the teachers, principals, office and counseling staff.

“That’s the thing I would encourage other districts to consider,” Reyes says. “If we could all take part responsibility and make it something that’s manageable and doable in other places.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

KXAN’s Josh Hinkle, KTXL’s Karma Dickerson and Robla School District social worker Laurie Butler discuss how one Sacramento school system is tracking down students to continue learning during the pandemic.