The TUSD van drives past the jail complex on Tucson’s southwest side. It heads down Mission Road from Silverlake, past half a dozen roadside altars, adorned with rusty metal crosses and fabric flowers in bright blues and pinks.

It passes trailers surrounded by chain-link fences and empty overgrown lots.

Then the van pulls into a little trailer park under “A” Mountain, with a community center that smells sharply of cleaning supplies and has flyers of missing teens on the bulletin board.

The team of education advocates disembark. Dogs bark as the late-summer heat breaks through the cloud cover. The group approaches the trailer home they’ve been looking for. Assistant Superintendent Mark Alvarez, who oversees TUSD’s southwest-side schools, carries a folder with information he hopes will change the life of a young person inside.

During TUSD’s annual Steps to Success walk, education advocates and community leaders went to the homes of teens who stopped going to school. Their hope: convincing the teens to come back to class and graduate.

Dozens of volunteers took part in Friday’s effort, including Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo, board members Adelita Grijalva and Leila Counts, mayoral candidate Regina Romero, City Councilman Paul Durham and many more community leaders.

They set out in small groups about 9 a.m. with 76 visits to make. By early afternoon, volunteers had made contact with teens at 46 homes.

Five young people, the district says, re-enrolled.

“We want to make sure you’re successful”

Before this walk, Steps to Success had reached nearly 1,300 kids. Of those, 683 re-enrolled in school and 103 graduated, according to Debbie Ferryman, the dropout prevention coordinator for TUSD. While those numbers might sound low, she says the impact is vast.

“To us, 103 kids with a diploma who were sitting in their homes playing video games — that’s amazing,” she says. “A hundred-and-three kids who just got to graduate, who will get jobs, who will have futures, who will not be a part of the system ... that’s enormous.”

When compared to high school graduates, the average person who doesn’t complete high school costs the economy about $266,000 over a lifetime, by way of lower tax contributions, higher reliance on government-funded health care, higher rates of criminal activity and higher reliance on welfare, according to a 2016 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, a statistical analysis arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Based on that estimate, those 103 TUSD graduates could save the tax base more than $27 million over a lifetime. Students dropping out isn’t just a school or district’s problem, Ferryman says; it’s everyone’s.

When Assistant Superintendent Alvarez knocks on the door of 15-year-old Jaime, his abuela opens the door. She invites Alvarez and two other volunteers into the house and goes to wake her grandson.

Bleary eyed, Jaime comes out wearing just a jean jacket and red gym shorts, his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. While his grandmother makes tortillas in the kitchen, Jaime faces the group of strangers in his living room.

Alvarez informs the young high schooler of some of the options available to him if he returns to school.

“We want to make sure you’re successful,” he tells Jaime, “because time goes by really fast.”

One of the volunteers, City Council candidate Nikki Lee, asks Jaime if he likes to play video games. The teen smiles and nods. Her son plays video games, too, she tells him, and wants to learn video game design.

They give Jaime flyers with some of the options available to him and write down their phone numbers on the back, telling him to call if they can be of any help.

In the volunteers’ packets is a list of options best suited to each teen’s needs. If a student only needs a few credits to graduate, they could return to their home school or do the Catalina Online Learning Experience, which also has in-person labs and instant messaging with teachers.

If they had problems at their home school, they can choose any other school in the district or try Project MORE a small program that Ferryman says provides the engagement piece when a kid feels overwhelmed by a large school.

For students working late nights, the solution might be a schedule adjustment to remove first period and take advantage of extended day available at each school — two extra periods in a computer lab with a certified teacher.

Students with children of their own might need the extra help at Teenage Parent High School, which offers day care for children up to 2 years old.

“We want to make sure the invitation is always there,” Alvarez tells Jaime as they leave. “We want you back in school, however that looks.”

Alvarez and the other volunteers take notes on the interaction so the dropout prevention staff can follow up.

Finding a connection

Last year, 718 TUSD students were put on the dropout list out of 23,893 students in seventh through 12th grades, according to Ferryman.

TUSD’s dropout rate is 2.9, according to the Arizona Department of Education. The district with the highest dropout rate in Pima County is Sahuarita at 5.2. The districts with the lowest dropout rates are Tanque Verde at zero, Catalina Foothills at 0.6 and Vail at 1.2. TUSD and the other four local districts have comparable rates.

Superintendent Trujillo says students dropping stems from a lack of connection. If a student connects with at least one adult in a school, they typically won’t drop out, he says.

He ties this back to education funding — inadequate funding leads to larger class sizes, fewer school counselors and more teacher vacancies.

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When there are 500 students to one counselor and a teacher might see 160 to 170 students in a day, finding that connection can be difficult, he says. As well, if a student doesn’t even have a permanent certified teacher in their classroom, it’s hard to create strong connections.

While a recent boost in education funding from the state seems to have helped retain and hire teachers, Pima County school district still began the year with 142 teacher vacancies.

“We are again looking at the consequences of a public education system that hasn’t been adequately funded,” Trujillo said.

“School becomes secondary”

Steps to Success began in the summer of 2014 when Mayor Rothschild and former Superintendent H.T. Sanchez were talking about how they could work together to help public education.

“I don’t want to just talk rhetoric,” Rothschild remembers saying. “What can we actually do that would change things?”

Sanchez told the mayor that when he worked at a school district in Texas, he just went to the homes of kids who dropped out, asking them to come back. Rothschild says Steps to Success is one of the best things he’s ever done.

As Rothschild knocked on doors over the years, waking kids up, pulling them away from video games, catching them as they head to fast-food jobs or while caring for their young children, he’s seen a lot of them have something in common: no authority figure had reached out to the teens to show they care.

Students drop out for varying reasons, from lacking a connection to their school, dealing with socioeconomic stress, working a late-night job or even getting kicked out of their homes, Ferryman says.

“If you gotta find a place to live,” she says, “school becomes secondary.”

America’s Promise Alliance interviewed 28 Tucson youth who had left school, half of whom were involved with Steps to Success, according to a study released in January.

These young people described unmet health needs, negative messaging from adults in schools, unfavorable stereotyping, being overwhelmed by their home life or peers and a lack of support outside of school, according to the study by the national alliance of nonprofits, businesses and government organizations.

Another study the organization released in April concluded that Tucson youth were more likely to come back to school if they have supportive relationships that establish trust and a better understand each student’s unique needs.

“We know they can succeed,” Ferryman says. “We know they’re a lot smarter than people ever give them credit for, and we want them back on our campuses. We want them back in our schools. And we want them to cross that stage with a diploma.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223.

Reporter

Danyelle joined the Star in 2018 and covers K-12 education. Previously, Danyelle wrote for the Tucson Weekly where she won several statewide awards including story of the year and first place investigative reporting.