Every year, 7 million U.S. children miss a month or more of school. As early as the sixth grade, student attendance is the leading indicator of high school graduation, and by grade nine, only 20 percent of chronically absent students earn their diploma.
For Patrick McLaughlin and his team at Kinvolved, a self-described social enterprise, the mission is seemingly simple: increase student achievement by minimizing absenteeism.
McLaughlin, who leads marketing for Kinvolved, points out that reducing student absences is about more than just attendance—striking the right tone can be critical too. “If you think historically about at-risk students, a lot of the conversation is framed in a negative light which tends to push families and students further away. Rather than harping on the negative, we encourage educators and administrators to send positive outreach about students’ performance and activity. Over time, this builds school-home trust which helps families and educators work together to support their students both inside and outside of school.”
With equity and engagement at the center of Kinvolved’s approach, the team created the attendance platform KiNVO, which includes a communications platform composed of Twilio’s Programmable Messaging, Voice, Notify, Lookup, and Phone Numbers APIs.
“There are plenty of notification systems in the K–12 marketplace, but a lot of them fail to account for the situations of students who have a higher likelihood of being chronically absent, such as students without a permanent home,” says McLaughlin.
“We've found that SMS is one of the most reliable ways to engage families, because even if they don't have Internet connection or a smartphone, most adults in the United States, at this point, have some type of cellular device that can receive text messages,” McLaughlin says. He adds that KiNVO instantly translates two-way messages in 80+ languages so that teachers and parents can have conversations even if the language used in class isn’t the parent’s home language.
Prior to COVID-19, Kinvolved focused primarily on helping school districts adhere to accountability standards for absenteeism and family engagement detailed in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
But in the wake of COVID-19, school closures and the sudden transition to remote learning made attendance an even bigger challenge. “As soon as that physical space closed and students stopped entering the building every day, districts realized, ‘Oh, our contact data is not up to date, and we don't have accurate phone numbers or email addresses for certain families which means we’ve lost contact with them,’ ” explains McLaughlin.
The problem is more critical than most think. In Los Angeles alone, approximately 15,000 high school students were absent online, and more than 40,000 were not in daily contact with the school during school closures.
While many schools across the country were blindsided by missing contact information and an inability to reach their students and families, KiNVO schools were prepared. In addition to managing attendance and facilitating equitable communications, KiNVO analyzes the contact data within school districts' student information systems to verify that the phone numbers on file are mobile numbers that can receive SMS, using Twilio’s Lookup API.
Karen Bailey, the Principal at P.S. 153 in Harlem, NYC, says: "Two days prior to distance learning, we successfully engaged in two-way communications with 470 out of 500 families. During the first week of distance learning, we got that list down to just one family [that we couldn’t contact]. After a few more days, we had open lines of communication with 100% of our families.”
The story behind that final family embodies the value of Kinvolved's work.
Bailey explains, “We learned the family was in temporary housing, and the parents were in dire straits so they packed up and moved in with a family member. As they were moving, the parent’s phone was shut off due to financial difficulties, so they were out of touch for multiple days. All of a sudden, her phone turned on due to government support and the first thing that popped up on her screen were all of the KiNVO messages with our check-ins and updates. She immediately responded to confirm they were safe and to explain what happened. The student has been attending class and submitting school work every day since then.”
As the coronavirus closures place new demands on districts, Kinvolved is rapidly developing new capabilities to help schools facilitate distance learning. “One feature that we rolled out sooner than we anticipated is the ability to send a PDF via SMS or email. With this, student workflow—such as sharing documents and sending and receiving homework—is actually taking place through KiNVO in order to support the distance learning experience,” says McLaughlin.
Districts have also used KiNVO’s messaging to overcome a variety of coronavirus related challenges beyond improving classroom attendance. Explains McLaughlin, “We’ve seen it used for things like communicating bus schedules during closures, because some districts are using buses to distribute and pick up homework, and we’ve seen districts use it to coordinate meal distribution to families who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.”
The variety of usage is evident in the numbers. During the onset of the pandemic, when a majority of schools began announcing they were closing and transitioning to distance learning, Kinvolved saw a more than 200% increase in usage of its KiNVO platform. “Twilio performed very well during that time and helped us meet the demand of the increased usage,” McLaughlin says.
All of a sudden, her phone turned on due to government support and the first thing that popped up on her screen were all of the KiNVO messages with our check-ins and updates. She immediately responded to confirm they were safe and to explain what happened. The student has been attending class and submitting school work every day since then.
As schools continue to face the uncertainty of the upcoming school year, Kinvolved is working to expand its capabilities. “We’re forecasting what the future may look like and discussing how to create features that truly help districts in those scenarios. One example is a dashboard that empowers an administrator to quickly see what percentage of overall family contact data is incorrect, and immediately have a list of the specific phone numbers or email addresses that need to be updated,” explains McLaughlin.
As distance learning continues to be the new normal, the flexibility and scalability of KiNVO’s SMS-based communications has seen a 15 percent increase in the number of new students it reaches, as new district partners have signed on.
Additionally, the Kinvolved team wants to use its platform to reinforce a sense of community. “We're interested in exploring video—we believe it has potential to add value to the school-home relationships our districts and educators are striving to strengthen.”
By using a holistic approach that combines technology, tools, and human intervention, Kinvolved seeks to change the deeply ingrained behaviors and external factors affecting student attendance and chronic absence—including poverty, racism, and socio-economic exclusion.
Across the country schools are still figuring out how to ensure social-distancing measures don’t compromise students’ education. For school districts, Kinvolved is, in McLaughlin’s words, “teaching teachers how to build relationships with families through positive engagement so that students stay on track to graduate—regardless of their circumstances.”
We've found that SMS is one of the most reliable ways to engage families, because even if they don't have Internet connection or a smartphone, most adults in the United States, at this point, have some type of cellular device that can receive text messages.