When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.
What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.
Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.
“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”
Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.
Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.
In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.
Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.
“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”
For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.
“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”
Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.
Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.
If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”
Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.
The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.
For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.
Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.
“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”
Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”
Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.
“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”
Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.
“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”
Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:
- Hickory Hill: Hickory Ridge Elementary, Sheffield Elementary, Winridge Elementary, Hickory Ridge Middle, American Way Middle, Wooddale High, Sheffield High
- Frayser & Raleigh: Corning Elementary, Frayser Elementary, Georgian Hills Elementary, Whitney Elementary, Westside Middle, MLK College Prep
- Whitehaven: Robert R. Church Elementary, A. Maceo Walker Middle, Hillcrest High