This story is part of (DIS)Invested, an ongoing series from The Reader and El Perico investigating the solutions and obstacles to solving system inequality in Omaha through housing, education, criminal justice and family issues.
When 13-year-old Yuseff Beasley learned the Omaha Public Schools would return to in-person classes in October 2020, he wasn’t too excited. Yuseff, who at that time lived in a foster care home and attended sixth grade at OPS’s Liberty Elementary School, had gotten used to avoiding classes during remote learning.
“I would take a picture of myself and put it as my homescreen and walk away from the camera, and it would look like I’m there,” he said. “The teacher never really called on me, so I didn’t really have to worry about that.”
In the fall, Yuseff moved out of foster care and back in with his mother, Olivia Beasley. When it came time for in-person classes, she grew concerned about his behavior — before foster care, he would never have skipped school.
“He felt confident enough to just walk out of class,” she said. That escalated to walking out of school, and when school let out for summer, losing interest in sports and hobbies he used to love.
Yuseff is one of more than 19,000 OPS students who was chronically absent in 2020-2021, or missed 10% or more of the school year, according to The Reader’s analysis of Nebraska Department of Education data. Of those students, more than 8,000 missed 20% or more of the year.
Like other students who miss school regularly, Yuseff’s absences weren’t simply due to a desire to skip classes. Returning to in-person learning during the pandemic caused him anxiety, and despite experiencing trauma before and during foster care, he still hadn’t been connected with mental health support.
His mother had hoped his school or the OPS district would offer support. But it was her own therapist who suggested Yuseff speak with the team at the Greater Omaha Attendance and Learning Services Center, or GOALS Center, a nonprofit addressing attendance and truancy issues for students in metro schools, including all 11 public schools districts of Douglas and Sarpy counties.
“It was such a relief when she made that referral,” Beasley said. “GOALS provided a mediation between my son and the teachers.”
The GOALS Center was created through state legislation that called for an out-of-school strategy to minimize referrals to the court system for attendance issues. GOALS family advocates work one-on-one with students to identify the barriers keeping them from going to school, connect them with resources and advocate for them to get back into the classroom without system involvement.
Chronic absenteeism is not a new problem, but rates have jumped considerably due to the pandemic: from about 28% of OPS students in 2018-2019 to 37% in 2020-2021. Students of color and low-income students struggle most with severe levels of absenteeism.
But GOALS referral data show the students most impacted are not always the ones receiving help. Despite being outnumbered nearly three-to-one by students of color in absentee data, more than half the students referred into GOALS in recent years were white. And OPS, the largest public school district in the area with the highest rates of students of color and low-income students, refers students to GOALS at the lowest rates.
In the 2020-2021 school year, OPS referred 29 students out of 8,352 who missed 20% or more of the school year. That same year, Millard Public Schools referred students at 17 times the OPS rate, according to The Reader’s analysis of NDE data.
These disparities illuminate larger, systemic problems rooted in the city’s segregation that have impacted Black, Latino and other students of color, as well as low-income Omahans for years, said Nicole Seymour, executive director of GOALS.
“This isn’t just about attendance, but this shows how resources are disseminated,” she said.
GOALS stands out as a key solution for the large number of chronically absent or truant students, as a strategy of the Learning Community’s Community Achievement Plan. But it is not the only organization in Omaha that works to alleviate chronic absenteeism, and it’s not meant to be, Seymour said. The program fits into the second or third level of a tiered intervention framework rooted in classroom-level interventions, according to research by Attendance Works, an organization focused on closing equity gaps by increasing attendance.
“Case management alone will not long term fix this problem: It’s a community problem; it’s a community fix,” Seymour said. “We have to work together.”
Prevention starts at that first intervention tier: in the classroom with teachers and in schools with attendance teams often made up of the principal, social workers, nurses and other staff members who track absences. If the issue persists, or a student needs more one-on-one help beyond school resources, school staff or another adult may refer them to a program outside of school, including GOALS.
GOALS family advocates talk often with caregivers and students, connecting them with community-based services offering mental health support, transportation, meals, after school programs and other resources that could address the root causes of a student’s absence.
“You can change the trajectory of an entire family’s dynamic in our work if we’re given the opportunity to do so,” Seymour said.
A narrow path for students to get help
Serving students in 11 public school districts doesn’t come without its challenges. GOALS staff may take up to 20 referrals at a time. They check in regularly with students, and risk for employee burnout is real, Seymour said. The pandemic also intensified students’ needs — the amount of class missed by the average student referred to GOALS jumped from 10% in 2019 to 44% in 2022, according to staff members.
Even if OPS fully utilized the program, GOALS would not have capacity to serve every student referred; it’s not uncommon for GOALS to run a waitlist. That’s why collaboration and partnerships with schools and local programs are so important, Seymour said.
“It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect the school districts to do this on their own,” she said. “You have to have a community at the table and parents, and providers, and everybody leaning in.”
But OPS’s low referral rates and limited referral pathways restrict some of the most impacted families from accessing help, said Lydia Turner, a family advocate and the community navigation coordinator with GOALS.
An OPS alum herself, Turner was hired in 2019 to address OPS students’ attendance needs. But the lack of OPS referrals hamstrung her work; she didn’t receive nearly enough to fill her caseload.
“Students are not getting access to available resources,” Turner said. “Those families need the services most.”
In 2018, OPS set a goal to improve attendance by 2% each year as part of its strategic plan, according to Lisa Utterback, the chief officer for student and community services at OPS. But in doing so, the district chose only four schools with high absentee rates to refer students to GOALS, significantly narrowed the referral route for OPS students into the program.
“For any student struggling to attend on time each day, we rally a team of school staff to identify obstacles and deliver solutions,” according to a statement shared via email by Omaha Public Schools. “Beyond school teams, we have many outside partners to assist. That could include the GOALS Center if a student meets their eligibility criteria. OPS also has several other community partners who help students and families remove attendance barriers.”
The district also encourages student attendance through its Strive for 95 campaign, which highlights the responsibilities of students, parents, and school staff to focus on ensuring students miss no more than nine days throughout the year.
“Our districtwide Strive for 95 campaign and customized interventions reflect our commitment to each student’s attendance, of every status and identity,” the district’s statement said. “Any assertion otherwise is simply not accurate.”
“Everybody should have the resources I have”
National data shows students of color are more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts, and research suggests educators’ implicit and explicit biases against Black students perpetuate that gap, starting as early as preschool. While Black students represent 25% of the OPS district, they made up nearly half of the students suspended and more than half the students expelled in the 2020-2021 school year.
“The school is the first system that every person in America pretty much enters into,” said Turner. “So when students feel demonized, and they feel that they’re pushed out, and that everything is a punitive thing, it’s a setup for later on in life.”
Mayalyn Thompson, a 15-year-old Black student who attended an OPS high school, was referred to the GOALS Center as a final effort to avoid the court system for truancy. With her mother, the school and Turner, they worked out a way to keep Mayalyn in the building rather than sending her home when she didn’t want to be at school in the first place.
Now Mayalyn spends most days after school with MAYS, the Metro Area Youth Services, and she is currently enrolled at the Omaha Street School. She’s noticed the difference in herself that she credits to the after school program, her job and other activities that have kept her from returning to old habits and feeling too bored at school.
“I feel everybody should have the resources I have, especially if you’re involved in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “Not all kids get what I get.”
According to the GOALS Center’s annual report, 90% of families who worked with the program in 2020-2021 were diverted from the court system.
Without getting involved in GOALS, Yuseff, who is also Black, said he is almost certain he would have been put on probation at some point.
When he moved to OPS’s King Science and Technology Magnet School in 2021, Yuseff was placed in a Behavior Support Program, or BSP, which means he is in one room with the same teacher and paraprofessional all day. He brought with him the trauma he endured before and during foster care, and one day, in a moment of frustration, Yuseff lashed out at his teacher.
“I flipped my lid,” he said, “I finally had enough.”
Yuseff has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which is a legal document that details the special education instruction, supports and services schools and educators should provide to help students make progress in class and thrive. But instead of following the IEP, the school called the police.
Staff then designed a safety plan for Yuseff, which required him to come to school an hour late each day so that a police officer could give him a daily pat down, according to Yuseff and his mother.
“There was a lot of fear with the staff, and that fear got into the way of really supporting him, and really helping him,” his mother said. “They were not educated on why a child who comes from trauma could behave this way.”
Connecting with GOALS family advocate Jasmine Renchie not only helped Yuseff get back on track attending classes, but also helped his mother feel empowered to ask why staff wasn’t following his IEP. When she asked, the school admitted that no one there had read the document, according to Beasley.
Soon after, the daily police pat downs ended.
“Parents need help,” Beasley said. “They need that advocate by their side to make them feel confident that what they’re thinking just might possibly be right.”
Since GOALS has come into the picture, Beasley feels the staff has changed their perspectives and become more receptive to her son’s needs.
“Now I feel like we’re all actually a team, instead of me having to go to bat against King Science,” she said.
Yuseff comes to school regularly now, and he’s passing every class.
“I’m still kept in one classroom all day, but at least it doesn’t feel like I’m in prison anymore,” he said. As one of the oldest in his class, he said he wants to be a role model for other students.
“Knowing I have a lot of people in my corner — my mother, my therapist, GOALS — just helps.”
Editor’s Note: The print version of this story misidentified data showing “more than 10,000” OPS students who missed 20% or more of the school year. Data shows more than 8,000 OPS students missed 20% or more of the school year. This error has been corrected.