The article below was written by Payne Ray, a reporter for Main Street Nashville. View the original story here.

After COVID-19 resulted in worsening chronic absenteeism in Metro Nashville Public Schools and nationally, MNPS, Alignment Nashville and several partners undertook a new effort this fall: finding the students who never showed up at the start of the year and getting them reenrolled.

Project Reconnect, which began this year in response to the pandemic, is a program designed for that job, MNPS Director of Attendance Services Carol Brown said. MNPS identifies students who, because they missed the first 10 days of school, were automatically withdrawn from their school, and Alignment Nashville brings the community together to reach out to them.

“The objective is to locate these students, support them, and reconnect them with MNPS, and get them reenrolled in our schools,” Brown said.

Melissa Jaggers, CEO of Alignment Nashville, said the nonprofit “partner broker” took on the work alongside MNPS to help fight back against increased absenteeism in the aftermath of multiple school years impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The objective isn’t to come off as punitive, Jaggers said, but to get these families who are often already receiving calls from MNPS and possibly the Juvenile Court to talk to a familiar community organization and help them get their student to school.

So far, they’ve recruited six partners for the program, though not all of them came on all at once due to stringent requirements for getting contact information for students’ families.

Each partner was required to meet a certain standard to qualify to receive the data from MNPS, as it is protected information under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Partners also took implicit bias trainings and were given a framework for their interactions to make sure families felt respected when they made contact.

Jaggers said the process slowed them down a bit this fall as they worked to get partners on board, but she said she’s looking forward to seeing the program in action again this spring and in the years to come.

So far, the partners involved are the McNeilly Center for Children; Backfield in Motion; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee; Catholic Charities of Tennessee; Communities in Schools of Tennessee; and the Nashville International Center for Empowerment.

Jaggers said each organization is primarily focused on areas where they work and are familiar to community members. When a partner signs up, she added, they can define where in the city they want to help.

That means even smaller community centers can play a part in the program, she said.

The program is just one effort schools are making to fight chronic absenteeism, defined as students missing more than 10% of the school year.

Due to how early it is in the school year, there isn’t enough data to tell how widespread the issue is, according to school officials. But Brown said they have noticed absenteeism rising across the district, even in areas where it typically isn’t as big a problem.

Project Reconnect is meant to bring back students who immediately fell off the radar and make sure they are given the supports needed to avoid becoming chronically absent, and so far it’s brought back “several hundreds” of students.

MNPS has also been working to make sure the support system it has for chronically absent students is robust enough to keep them coming back and that it addresses the root causes that are keeping students out of school.

These include the district’s Navigator and Sown to Grow programs, which provide students with mentors who perform regular check-ins and give students a place to reach out about their struggles, whether academic or emotional. They provide in-depth ways for teachers and administrators to keep track of each student, and schools can help provide individual solutions.

Jaggers said she thinks Project Reconnect is a great addition to those efforts, demonstrating the power of getting the community involved.

“I think Project Reconnect is a great example of how we have willing partners. You just need someone to (organize them),” she said.