SAN ANTONIO – For weeks, an all-out search has been taking place in schools across the state to find students who were in the classroom last year but didn’t show up for the new school year.
"We’re trying to find these kids," said Sandra Valles, a former police officer who is now the assistant principal at Legacy of Educational Excellence, or L.E.E. High School, which is part of the North East Independent School District.
After the first day of the 2018-2019 school year, L.E.E. High School had 260 students’ names on its so-called leaver list.
"Some may be homeless. Some may have had a baby. Some maybe had to stay home to take care of small children," Valles said. "There's just a bunch of different situations that happen out there."
No matter the situation, the goal of school staff is to connect students and their families with resources to remove any barriers standing in their way of an education.
But first, they have to find them.
"We'll do things like reach out to them on social media. We go to their friends or if they were in organizations in the past," L.E.E. High School Principal Nicole Franco said.
"We look at who their teachers were the previous year and send them emails and say, 'Hey, did you ever overhear ...?' or 'Who did they talk to?' You put all the picture together and now, all of the sudden we have a place to start," Franco said.
The school calls it the leaver process.
"They can be leavers for a variety of reasons," Franco said. "I think the assumption is that they're dropouts and that's not the case. I think that has a negative connotation. Sometimes life happens. They're leavers because they're not back enrolled with us here."
Schools must report their number of leavers to the Texas Education Agency by Friday.
Between the first day of school and that deadline, school staff compares its list of leavers each day to see what new information staff members may have uncovered that could help locate the students.
The staff members make calls before school, after school and on weekends.
Sometimes, cases are solved.
That's what happened when our KSAT cameras were following along with L.E.E. High School staff members when they did a daily examination of the leaver list in early September.
A male student’s name was crossed off the list after his grandmother brought him back to school to be re-enrolled.
"And that's one of those situations where something in the family dynamic has changed," Franco said.
Other times, there are simply no leads.
"I would like to say that every year we get down to zero kids and that's not reality," Franco said. "And, ultimately, our frustration is: Where are (they)? These are human beings that are unaccounted for that we cannot find."
That's when school staff takes the search to the district's director of family support services, Tyler Shoesmith.
"These kiddos, when they leave the school district, there's not -- not the Social Security Administration, not the IRS -- they're not looking for these students," Shoesmith said.
"So, if you have an unaccompanied youth who doesn't come back the next school year, that kid could be in a harmful situation. We don't know where that child might be," he said.
Shoesmith said his best investigative tool is the internet.
"We're able to either find a parent or relative or brother's sister's cousin's mother somewhere and figure out the spider web that’s able to track back to the kid and hopefully find an area for them," Shoesmith said.
"I’ve found people in South Africa. I've found them in Europe in a private school in France, kids in England, DOD (Department of Defense) schools in Okinawa," he said.
Locating the student who is not in school is a victory.
Getting that student back into class is the next big hurdle. School staff often makes house calls to connect students and their families with services they may need.
"The ones that, for us, are the most rewarding are when life has happened to the student or life has happened to the family," Franco said.
"We'll get to where the assistant principal and the counselor and our family specialist -- who are the folks on the campus who really help students and their families remove obstacles so that they're successful here -- we’ll get that team. They'll hop in a car and head over to the living room."
"What's going on with those kids? They deserve a chance. They deserve a chance to come back to get their education," Valles said.
"It's our prerogative to find these kids, make sure they're going to school, but also to (make sure) that they're safe," Shoesmith said. "If we don't look for them, no one else is looking for them at this point."
Once school districts report to the TEA the number of students who did not return for a new school year, the agency considers those students dropouts.
Staff at L.E.E. High School said the search to find the students continues all year long.