John Williams, who works on behalf of the public schools in Brockton, wanted to know why 16-year-old Glen hadn’t logged into his remote classes since the school year began in September.
So he called Glen's mother, who said she's tried and tried to get her son out of bed and online, but he won't listen. It was 11 a.m., she noted, and Glen was still in bed.
Within 20 minutes, Williams was sitting at Anna Jamison's kitchen table in her tiny apartment, which smelled like incense and Lysol.
"I need him to be back in school [in person]," she said. "I'm not liking this. I get him up every morning for his classes. It's like five minutes later, I go back in, and he's like this."
Jamison mimicked her son asleep.
"I'm like, okay, this is not working out," she said.
A groggy Glen emerged in the doorway. Avoiding eye contact, he slumped into a seat at the kitchen table.
While officials have often measured school progress by the number of laptops and connections doled out to students during the pandemic, home visits in places like Brockton tell a different story. National surveys of educators find that student absenteeism has risen by 10 percent whether schools are in-person, hybrid or remote. But the losses are as high as 12 percent — double the rate for in-person learning a year ago — in remote classrooms.
Todd Rogers, a public policy professor at Harvard who studies ways to improve school attendance, predicts "catastrophically bad" levels of learning loss and disengagement in poor districts among legions of students struggling on the academic margins. About one-third of Massachusetts school districts are operating schools remotely.
“I am afraid. I’m especially afraid for the most vulnerable kids," Rogers said. "The more you talk with anyone about education, you can’t help but be terrified.”
Williams is not a truant officer, social worker or guidance counselor. He's an ex-offender who runs a novel mentorship program for the Brockton schools finding at-risk kids — the AWOL ones school staff haven't been able to reach. He and the mentors he employs routinely encounter parents with addiction issues, students who are tired from working to help support their family or kids at home alone trading school for social media, gangs or drugs. While spending a few days with him last week, a GBH News reporter saw a mother battling addiction break down about her inability to get her son to log into classes and met a parent who smelled of alcohol. Some families simply didn't answer the door when Williams' team came knocking.
It was a chilly 35 degrees on a Monday morning, and Williams held a list of six new students. His first stop: the home of 14-year-old high school freshman Taishaun, who hadn't logged into school remotely all year. He pulled up in front of his worn unit in the Roosevelt Heights housing development, noting his long odds.
"The leverage that we do have is they know, they know, if they don't engage in school, their probability of dying or going to jail at a young age is exponentially greater," he said. "So hopefully we can transfer that to them, you know?"
He knocked, and Taishawn opened the door, which was decorated to look like a holiday present. Williams smiled like it was Christmas.
"How you doing?" he asked.
"Good," Taishawn said.
"Why you not logged into school?" Williams asked.
"I dunno," the teen said.
A second teen named Jeremy appeared in the doorway. He also was on Williams' no-show list. He wore a tracking bracelet around his ankle and said his court involvement for stealing cars and other offenses interfered with his schooling. Williams didn't sympathize.
"Look, you wanna pass? Because yo, I won't waste the time. I won't come by. I'm not here to ya know, kill you all's vibe," he said. "But if you want to go to school, bro, and pass, and get done with it, I can help with that. We can get you connected and locked in. You know what I do."
This is very true. Everyone seemed to know Williams on his rounds. That familiarity is key to his credibility on the street and in local power circles. He's been doing street work for decades in Brockton, his hometown where he still lives on the third floor of a triple decker with his wife and three of his five kids. He attended Brockton high, but didn't graduate because at 17 he got in trouble and later went to prison for armed robbery.
Although school didn't keep Williams out of trouble, a relationship with a gym teacher he used to shoot hoops with in middle school proved pivotal for both men. Brockton Superintendent Michael Thomas is that former gym teacher. When he wanted to fix the district's problem with chronic absenteeism a decade ago, he called on Williams.
"He's just one of those guys that has that fire inside him," he said. "And he's tough. He's bluntly honest with them."
This fall, the absentee rate in Brockton is a relatively low 7 percent, Thomas says, due in part to Williams' program, which has a contract with the district. But it's not cause for celebration. Thomas said while the district can get a student logged in, it doesn't mean they're learning. Teachers take attendance at the beginning and end of every class, but ghosting is rampant. Williams said kids also pass around classroom links, letting their friends bomb classes and wreak havoc.
What would help students engage? Hiring diverse teachers who look like the student body. Williams noted a wide cultural divide in the district between the mostly white teachers and Brockton's 16,000 students, a group that's 60 percent African-American, 17 percent Hispanic and 16 percent white. It's the state's fifth-largest school district, and nearly two-thirds of its students are at-risk — either disabled, economically disadvantaged, English language learners or a combination.
Williams just hired four more mentors — all men of color — to handle his growing pandemic caseload. They're a diverse bunch overall, including several with college degrees and two former UMass football players.
Thomas agrees that schools needs to diversify their staff, saying he has applied for three grants to make it happen in the face of district funding cuts and layoffs in recent years.
"When John is reached usually that's because there's been already three or four visits by the adjustment counselor, maybe the principal. The assistant principal has visited the home," he said. "Guidance counselors are making calls, teachers are making calls every day. So, you know, when they get to John, it's the last resort."
Terri Martinez-McGraw, director of the National Center for School Engagement in Pueblo, Colorado, says the lucky kids get mentors, especially in COVID times.
"Who is going to be able to communicate with our kids?" she asked. "Who is going to be able to bring them back into into the learning environment, which sometimes, you know, they have not been successful in?"
Back at Glen's kitchen table, Williams has identified a source of Glen's undoing: late night gaming. A semi-pro gamer himself, he let Glen know he'll be able to see if he's playing all night. Williams asked him if realizes the pain he's causing his mother — reminding him that he would probably fight anybody else who hurt her.
It's hard to tell what Glen is thinking, but his mother Anna Jamison looks relieved. Two years ago, she regained full parental custody of her son and doesn't want a visit from a truant officer to jeopardize that.
As Williams stood in the foyer to leave, Jamison asked how Glen could learn from Williams' mistakes but not his own father's? He had been in and out of jail, she said.
"It's still his dad, right?" Williams said, almost in a whisper.
Williams talked about how his mentors will "wrap around" Glen, support him and help him learn to make value-based decisions about the kind of man he wants to be.
"And that's all we can really do," he said.
Williams left. He and his crew have other visits that take them winding through Brockton's seemingly endless back streets. Williams has a dozen mentors working for him, but he doesn't want to stop reaching out to kids in person. It's his calling, he says, and there's much more to do.