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How one school reached out to missing students

After a semester of learning online – though not much — Maddie Cummings is glad to be back in school. 

Senior Maddie Cummings makes the ‘U’ sign for Union High School, where she’s glad to be back in person

“I’m a very hands-on person, especially during school. I just learn quicker,” said the senior, taking a break from chatting with friends before school. “It was very odd learning virtual. I wasn’t getting the best grades that I used to get. When I got back in school, it was just a lot better.” Plus, she added, “I get to see faces that I haven’t seen in almost a year.”  

Maddie was not one of the 80 or so students that did not return to Union in the fall as expected, part of a major enrollment shortfall for Grand Rapids Public Schools. But Union and GRPS officials hope that the better experience of students like her, now that learning has shifted from all-virtual to hybrid in-person, will prompt some of those missing students to return. 

See related story: School districts across Kent County look for missing students

In fact, Principal Aaron Roussey knows of at least one who did. An 18-year-old senior told him he hadn’t been in school for four months. “He said flat-out, ‘I’m not coming back till you’re in person,’” Roussey said.

Come mid-January, when GRPS school doors opened, that student was indeed back at Union. 

Principal Aaron Roussey said many of his students craved the personal connections of in-person learning

All Hands on Deck 

Roussey and his staff have been trying to contact missing students since September, when the projected enrollment of 1,080 was barely above 1,000. Working from phone numbers, emails and last known addresses, staffers found many had left because they wanted in-person learning or had moved out of the district. A number of older students had gotten jobs to help their families through the financial crisis. 

The biggest chunk came from the school’s Newcomers program for refugees and new immigrants, many of whose families couldn’t get into the U.S. because of border shutdowns, Roussey said.

The good news: Since school doors opened in January about 40 students have enrolled at Union, a “good number” of them students who had left, Roussey said. Those include the 18-year-old who had legally dropped out, and who returned thanks to his personal connections with staff members, Roussey said.

“It’s great to have him back,” Roussey added. “Now we’ve got work to do. He’s got work to do.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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