On the last day of Northside Independent School District’s academic year, truancy officers Claudia Stowe and Rose Houser Disch remained hard at work. Before 7 a.m., the two joined a few dozen co-workers at Mead Elementary near the Medical Center, sorting through boxes of food donated by the San Antonio Food Bank.

They toiled for about an hour, packing boxes with bags of rice, flats of beans, and cans of tuna before loading a school bus and driving the half mile to Budget Suites of America, an extended-stay hotel where school officials estimated 50 Mead families resided. There, Stowe’s and Disch’s real work began.

Student attendance was not truancy officers’ focus Thursday, but it was likely that some of the kids at the Budget Suites were among the group that school districts lost touch with when officials shut down campuses in March and made multiple announcements extending remote learning.

Despite teachers’ best efforts, thousands of San Antonio kids remained unresponsive, never communicating with their campuses. Educators observed that these students often were the same ones who already struggled to engage in class, distracted or challenged by factors outside of the classroom. Coronavirus and the ensuing economic downturn just made matters worse.

In Northside ISD, the average rate of engagement was 93 percent, a district spokesman said, meaning about 7 percent of the district’s almost 107,000 students failed to participate on a regular basis. Collectively, other San Antonio schools also lost touch with thousands – North East ISD wasn’t able to reach 1,686 students and San Antonio ISD failed to track down 1,020 kids.

So while the truancy officers weren’t ticking off names on an attendance roll, they were looking to reach students who might need food or other resources, factors they say contribute to kids showing up for lessons. Last weeks’ work was an effort to show Mead families that Northside ISD cares about their circumstances and can offer resources to help, the officers aid.

Armed with a list of about 15 families last recorded as living at Budget Suites, the pair navigated the sprawling complex, knocking on doors but rarely getting a response.

“Northside here, we have food for you,” Disch called out. “Mead Elementary, we’re here to deliver some meals!”

At the first door the pair knocked on, a dog barked from within as a cat strolled a window ledge behind a curtain. A young boy came to the door and said his parents weren’t there. Stowe took down the names of the four kids who lived there before delivering a box of nonperishables and a bag of hot meals.

At one door, a woman said she knew the boy the pair was seeking, but he lived in a different part of the complex. “I hope you find him because he obviously needs the help,” she said.

The federal McKinney Vento Act classifies students living at Budget Suites and similar accommodations as homeless for their lack of “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Two buildings later, the truancy officers encountered a rare success. The family was present at the recorded address and wanted the food from Mead. The woman who answered the door said she would go to the front of the complex to collect a box.

Under the hot summer sun, Stowe and Disch made their way from apartment to apartment, wearing Northside polos, masks, and sneakers. They remarked how the normal person probably wouldn’t guess this was how truancy officers spend their days.

June marked the conclusion of Disch’s fourth and Stowe’s fifth years as truancy officers. Before that, Stowe worked with underrepresented students applying for higher education opportunities and Disch worked as a juvenile probation officer for Bexar County.

“We were social workers to begin with,” Disch said. She decided to become a truancy officer because it would give her more time to help students before they entered the court systems.

“When we’re talking to a family about truancy, it is not about you need to go to school or we’ll take you to court,” Disch said. “It’s about how can I fix what’s going on to get you engaged in school, because I want you to succeed.”

Stowe wanted to help connect students with available resources – housing support, food, job training, immigration services. In the five years she’s worked with NISD, she’s seen a big change in how the district has addressed truancy.

“The difference is about asking how can we help versus us being punitive,” Stowe said.

Disch emphasized that sending a student to truancy court won’t help a family already on the brink, struggling to bring home enough food or take care of bills.

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The pair observed that their work is more important than ever now. While the impact of the pandemic may immediately affect individuals’ health, the lingering effects could permanently impair families’ livelihoods, they said.

As the truancy officers crossed more apartment numbers off their list Thursday, the number of unsuccessful knocks accumulated. Initially, Disch hoped they might reach 60 percent of the families. But by the end of the hour spent traversing the vast property, they had connected with just five, about a third of their starting number.

At the front of the complex, between 15 and 20 families had collected boxes of food from the school bus, a Northside official said.

But no matter the number of families who actually showed up, it was important to Mead Principal Annette Lopez to make the trip because students who didn’t otherwise have access to transportation still needed the resources and the reminder that help is available.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.