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Onerous enrollment policies are keeping missing students out of school, stunning AP reporting shows

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When Toness joined AP in 2022, she said, “I want to find missing kids.” By then, the national conversation had shifted away from students who left school during the pandemic, never to return. Schools had largely stopped looking for them. But Toness knew they were out there. And during a remarkable year of reporting, she found them — over and over again.

No story was more devastating than her latest. While reporting another project in Atlanta, Toness heard from a source at a housing project about four kids who essentially hadn’t been to school since March 2020. The family often lacked a working cell phone, so Toness mailed them letters, sent messages through her source and eventually took a chance and flew to Atlanta to try to meet them at a school-supply giveaway. They were the last family through the line.

Toness earned their trust, flying to Atlanta each time she needed to communicate. Their lives had been upended by the loss of the children’s father, and with him the family’s income, car and important documents. Toness discovered Atlanta requires at least eight documents to enroll, including a notarized affidavit of residency — part of a trend in some districts around the country. Without ID cards, a car or a working phone, the mother had spent months trying to collect the information for each document.

A week before the package ran, Atlanta schools released contact records for the family. School social workers called 19 times — nearly all of them to a disconnected phone. Only once, in spring 2021, did anyone attempt to visit. (No one was home.) And when the mother tried to send the kids to school on the bus without their enrollment paperwork, they were sent home.

Toness’ story included a data analysis by Sharon Lurye showing an estimated 50,000 students in 22 states and the District of Columbia are still missing from school since the pandemic. Lurye personally compiled private school, homeschool and public-school enrollment from every state, then analyzed it after accounting for population change, to produce the only such analysis of its kind. The package also ran with a sidebar on declining kindergarten enrollment by Cheyanne Mumphrey and a partner reporter at EdSource, a nonprofit newsroom in California.

Toness’ package — plus AP’s data analysis — led the Axios PM newsletter the day it ran, getting the plight of an estimated 50,000 missing students in front of policymakers and politicos nationwide.

AP also shared its data with dozens of newsrooms in advance, and Toness coached reporters on how to investigate enrollment policies at their local schools. Newsrooms in New York, North Carolina, California, Seattle and Detroit have already written their own stories with the data.

For strong reporting on the issue of children missing from school since the pandemic, education accountability reporter Bianca Vázquez Toness is this week’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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