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School officials work to reel in 'ghost students' missing class

Larry McGill
Posted at 5:30 PM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-18 11:34:10-04

Ghost students. That is the term being used to describe a student who, during the COVID-19 pandemic, stopped showing up for class, whether in-person or online.

“We got her back going (to school) and about a week later I said, 'let’s check'... no activity whatsoever,” said Principal Larry McGill of South Pointe High School in South Phoenix.

Without giving any specifics, McGill shares details of how difficult it has been during the pandemic to keep high schoolers attending school.

“They come to school and then they stop showing up. I tell them that we are wasting precious time,” said McGill.

According to the Arizona State Department of Education, there are roughly 38,500 students who have been un-enrolled from public schools -- 42% of that number are children in the pre-kinder and kindergarten age groups. Those students have probably stayed home during the pandemic and are expected to enroll come August 2021. But the other percentage, 58%, is unaccounted for.

The student McGill is referring to was at one point in the 58% of unaccounted students.

“So I was like we can’t let this one go, she’s a true Griffin…those are students who start with us as freshmen and come all the way through, and so we just can’t let her fall,” added McGill.

Part of the ‘not letting her fall’ approach means going to her last known address and knocking on the door, asking questions of those adults who are at the home, and seeing what, if anything, administrators can do to help.

In the case of the senior who he tracked down, her grandmother, Juana Carranza answered the door and agreed to speak to Principal McGill.

“I tell her 'I don’t see you on the computer at school.' She tells me she wasn’t motivated because she wasn’t at the actual school. So then, when the principal came to our house, he told her with the right words, that that was no excuse,” said Carranza.

“She’s one of the kids that fell through the cracks. She was working too much and thought that work was too important,” added McGill.

McGill admits that the pandemic has caused many students at his South Pointe High School to have to go to work or help take care of younger siblings who are also going to school online while parents work.

On the day he showed up at Carranza’s home, he was accompanied by Virma Chavez, the school’s vice-principal who is bilingual and helps with Spanish-speaking parents or guardians.

“Often phone numbers don’t work and we still don’t see anything from the kids and so then we have to go out to their homes, “ said Vice Principal Chavez.

The second home they visited proved to be unsuccessful. Nobody at the apartment opened the door and the student who they were looking for, they can’t find.

This is the new way he’s trying to connect with many of these so-called ‘ghost students.'

"So now it’s gotta look different. Usually, they come to the campus that was taken away. So now I have to make it personal, at their place. And making sure that they see you caring about them,” said McGill.

His message to those who aren’t showing up to school is a simple one: “Let us help you get through the excuse. We can support you. If you have to work, if you have to babysit or get your brother or sister online, we understand that. The family is first. When will you be available for classes? When can we support you with tutoring?” stated McGill.

For McGill and Chavez, every student they engage with and bring back to school is a win.

“We got her back,” said McGill, when speaking of Carranza’s granddaughter.

McGill says he will be back at Carranza's home to check up on her granddaughter the minute she fails to show up to school again.

"To see the kids, they are excited, there’s a new energy around campus and for those kids, I’m glad they are here."