Kusema Thomas II got Fs on his first two sixth-grade report cards at a Los Angeles Unified middle school.

His homeroom teacher marked him absent for 38 days over 10 weeks. His English teacher warned that he was in danger of not meeting standards for promotion. His math teacher wrote, “Truancies/tardies are affecting class work.”

The grades hardly came as a shock. Kusema hadn’t attended classes for most of the first six weeks of school at the Stephen M. White Middle School STEAM Magnet.

But not for lack of interest or for lack of trying.

First, there was a lost school application, delaying enrollment a week past the Aug. 18 first day. Then there were problems with a deactivated school email. A password problem kept him out of the district’s distance learning platform, Schoology. Then a malfunction of the district-loaned computer. Then the password problem again. For reasons yet to be explained, Kusema sat in Zoom’s entry room for seven days, waiting to no avail for teachers to let him into class, said his father, Kusema Thomas. When his son’s Chromebook locked up, he bought him one.

No one at the school reached out to him after repeated voice messages and emails during this time, said Thomas.

In retrospect, he said, perhaps he could have pressed harder by visiting the school in person sooner, beside leaving multiple unanswered voicemails with the school and district for technology help. “It’s possible that I could have gone to the school earlier; but every time I go to school, I have to take a day off work,” he said.

Frustrated, on Oct. 1, he did miss work to go to the school where he appealed for help from the principal and the technology specialist, who reset his son’s password. Since then, Kusema has been in class. (He ended up taking three days off for other attempts to resolve this issue.)

But, now, nearly three months into the school year, the father said that he is distressed that the school and that most of his teachers haven’t acknowledged what the family’s gone through or provided help so the boy can catch up. He is worried that his son has fallen behind through no fault of his own at a critical time in his education.

“You would think that there would be a plan in place for kids who are not attending or having issues in the classroom,” he said.

Chronic absences undetected

Among the requirements that the Legislature set for distance learning in the 2020-21 state budget, school districts must create a plan to reach students who miss more than three out of five days each week.

Michael Romero, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified’s Local District South, offered no explanation for why Kusema Thomas said he was not contacted although his son was clearly chronically absent. Since August, nearly 100 attendance counselors have been assigned to the 150 schools he administers, including Stephen White Middle School, to connect with students who are not showing up in class. They have been reaching out “by letters, emails, texts, phone calls. And then just recently we started knocking on doors,” Romero said.

Romero said the district is “still reaching out and investigating what might’ve gone wrong” for Kusema. “We’re taking it right now as an opportunity just to refine and review (the process) using this family as an example.”

It’s difficult to know whether other students have fallen through the cracks in Los Angeles Unified this fall as Kusema did or whether his situation was a unique combination of technology glitches, communication gaps and a school that was unresponsive to his family.

“There are times when families and kids struggle. The good thing is it’s not a prominent number, but I’m not saying it doesn’t happen,” Romero said.

Romero and other school and district officials declined to address the problems Kusema faced, citing privacy concerns, despite receiving an email from the boy’s father giving them permission to discuss the case with EdSource.

In a phone call with EdSource in mid-September, Stephen White Principal Marva Woods said students struggling after the first report card can get help and in-person intervention classes after school. After the second report, at 10 weeks, there are interventions for students needing more intensive help.

Romero confirmed that Stephen White Middle School offers tutoring two days each week. “A dozen teachers have volunteered for any kid who’s struggling. And a lot of the kids at the school have taken advantage of it,” he said.

Romero said he felt the school “did a great job of publicizing the opportunities.” Parents who went on the parent portal of Schoology could click a button to inform the school they were interested. Woods announced the extra help in her automated weekly phone message, he said.

The school’s assistance no doubt happened for some students, but as of Nov. 15, Thomas said he had not received any offer for intervention or information about tutoring. Thomas said he had trouble navigating the Schoology site and didn’t know he could sign up for help through the portal.

He said Woods and Assistant Principal Michael Tarango never mentioned it in emails or in conversations with him. In October, after Tarango twice emailed Kusema’s teachers, asking them to contact Thomas about assignments and technology problems, two responded, Thomas said. One sent an email with links to Schoology tutorials. (Thomas showed an EdSource reporter one of Tarango’s emails.)

“I’m hoping that there will be some communication,” Thomas said in late October. “I’ve gotten none of that, and that’s really hard on a parent.”

Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource

Kusema Thomas holds one of his son’s report cards

Missed calls, marked absences

While there were many attempts by both Thomas and the district to contact each other, none of them seemed to work.

During the weeks from late August through early October that Kusema couldn’t sign on to Schoology or get into his Zoom classes, Thomas received automated messages from school, without contact information, that his son was absent or not turning in homework.

Irritated that the school hadn’t responded to his own voicemail and email requests for technical help, he said he stopped listening to the school’s automated messages. If some of those were from the principal announcing after-school tutorials, he missed them. And if there were signups for tutorials through Schoology, he was unaware of it.

Before school started and on the first two days of school, Los Angeles Unified ran “Smart Start” with webinars to familiarize parents and students with scheduling, signing on Zoom and navigating Schoology. Although teachers and the school have parents’ and guardians’ emails and phone numbers, the district encourages parents to communicate through the parent portal for Schoology, which can be linked to a parent’s cell phone.

But Thomas missed the smart-start training sessions, because he hadn’t discovered until shortly before school started that the district did not have his son’s school registration form which he said he had submitted. By the time he was able to go through the school selection process and re-enroll, it was the last week in August. Classes started on Aug. 18.

A series of technical issues

After enrolling late, there was a problem reactivating Kusema’s email address and password, Thomas said. Kusema’s first day for signing on to the system was Sept. 8. From then until Oct. 1, when Thomas visited the school and the principal intervened and Kusema was back in class, there were a series of problems with the Schoology password that would have enabled him to get the links for classes on Zoom. Thomas said he left numerous voice messages for the school’s technology specialist who referred him to the district’s Schoology team. Days turned into weeks.

Assistant Principal Tarango did arrange for a one-on-one Schoology tutorial for Thomas at school; that was in late October.

Stephen White Middle School has 1,700 students. In the September interview with EdSource, Woods, the principal, acknowledged the school’s communications systems weren’t perfect. “There will be human error; there may be misunderstanding between the attendance team and the teacher,” she said. “We are a school; we have flaws.”

Thomas said he sensed that officials just didn’t believe that he had been trying to get his son into the virtual classes.

“They never explained to me why the teachers didn’t let him in. It was more kind of like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t happen. The teachers would let him in, and we monitor this,’” Thomas said. “It was kind of like the hard LAUSD line to cover themselves, but this is what was happening. I’m not going to let my kid sit at home all day and do absolutely nothing for months. That just doesn’t help him out in the long run.”

Thomas said that if the school had reached out to him, as it should have, the computer issues would have been resolved three weeks earlier.

An involved parent

Thomas considers himself an involved parent. He’s motivated, he said, to be the father he didn’t have growing up in Los Angeles. Before Covid, he responded when needed at his son’s elementary schools, he said.

“My son’s education is very important to me and that’s why I haven’t stopped” trying to resolve the mix-ups this year, he said. “You know, it could have been easy just to kind of give up, but when he grows up, I want him to remember that his dad fought for him in every sense and aspect of his life when it comes to making sure that he gets what he deserves.”

Thomas, 45, lives with sons 11-year-old Kusema, 4-year-old Kadin and his fiancée in Carson, which lies between Long Beach and Los Angeles. He works two counseling jobs, at Southern California Counseling and Project Fatherhood, where he leads sessions for men confronting domestic violence.

A gang leader in his teens and early 20s, Thomas was working as a cook through Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit that provides support and training for former gang members, when his manager picked up on his people skills and steered him to a course on counseling. After he had kids of his own, he returned to school for a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education at CSU Dominguez Hills.

“My children saved my life,” he said. “I decided I didn’t want them to experience the stuff I faced.”

Every school day, Thomas takes both sons to his mother’s apartment in South Central Los Angeles, where she has turned her living room into a classroom for remote learning for Kusema and his four cousins.

For six weeks, Kusema has been back in class, and things have gone relatively smoothly. He has had a hard time making friends, and Thomas said he was disappointed that his teachers didn’t introduce him to his classmates to make him feel at home as the new kid in class.

“It feels weird because I don’t know nobody,” Kusema told EdSource in mid-October. “So I need to keep everything to myself.”

Thomas said he is still dealing with some technical problems, accessing and uploading homework — a concern since Kusema needs to raise his grades.

Two bigger issues remain unresolved. Thomas wants the tutoring that the district and the school says is offered to students who have fallen behind. And he wants the school not to count Kusema’s first two report cards. If those report cards stand, Kusema will be unfairly penalized, he said.

So far, he hasn’t gotten an answer from the school on his requests, he said.

“I would like the school to treat him as just like a kid coming in past the period of grading, because most of that — all of that — was their issue,” he said.

“I’m still trying to get some clarity around his report card and stuff, because I’m concerned about that. …it’s sixth grade and I just really want him to be able to thrive.”

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