On a balmy morning this week Marcus Petty knocks on doors in the South Chicago neighborhood. He’s armed with a clipboard and flyers.
His task is to make sure Chicago Public Schools parents know where their child is enrolled for the fall.
Petty checks contact information, gives out CPS literature about start times and important phone numbers. He asks questions like: Will the student be there the first day? Do you have any questions or concerns? Can we update your contact info?
This particular morning Petty hits 40 homes. He has a list of addresses from CPS, and he goes from place to place. Many are homes where CPS didn’t have correct contact information. In the hot hours he’s out, Petty finds a good chunk of abandoned homes or that the family doesn’t live there anymore.
Students in CPS return to classrooms on Sept. 8. But the district often has a hard time reaching all parents to make sure they know where to send their children on the first day of school. Families get lost for myriad reasons: they move, they change contact info. For the past several years, CPS has hired street teams to check in with them.
Petty is with Black United Fund of Illinois, one of 14 vendors CPS has hired to conduct summer door knocking.
Black United Fund got about 3,000 addresses to check. The South Side nonprofit pays workers like Petty between $11 and $13 an hour to canvass neighborhoods such as Roseland and South Shore.
Henry English, CEO of Black United Fund, says using community groups to canvass is critical.
“It makes a difference when Ms. Brown from down the street comes knocking on your door or somebody that you know from the neighborhood comes knock on your door expressing interest about your child’s education,” English says.
It’s also about the money. School funding follows the child, so attendance is critical. Decreased enrollment — even by a handful of students — can mean less money for schools that need every dollar.
This school year, CPS predicts it will enroll 396,000 students.
Nkrumah English is program director for Black United Fund and says it’s important to keep track of children in a district with many families who move around.
“The families are transferring them out of the school without giving notification,” English says. “So the school would be expecting them to start the starting date but that kid will be in a whole ‘nother school or maybe whole ‘nother state.”
In total, CPS is paying the 14 vendors $200,000. Kindergarten and 9th grade are sensitive years because it’s either the starting point or a transition. In a system of choice, students may change their minds about which school they’re attending up until when school starts so CPS focuses more on those families.
The district’s public policy chief Arnie Rivera digs through school data to determine which households need a personal visit.
“We were targeting students that historically had truancy issues, and just lack of attendance on the first couple of days of school and making sure we get those kids especially off on the right foot,” Rivera says.
Rivera says it’s important for the district to make contact with students early on — not just to get them in the door but to assess what additional support they might need.
“If we see that we’re seeing some challenges one the first couple of days, it’ll give us time to readjust and self correct,” Rivera says.
In the meantime, the door knocking will continue this weekend and through the first day of school.