The 2019-20 school year hadn’t yet begun when East Aurora School District 131 began plotting its 2020 census community outreach.

The 14,000-student district 35 miles west of Chicago made plans to discuss the census during its districtwide Parent University conference in early October. District staff prepped a census 101 fact sheet to go home with students. They added a “census is coming” note, including information about employment opportunities as a census taker, to the district’s website. And they began discussions about training the parent liaisons in each of the district’s 24 buildings to reach out and assist families who might have questions about the census.

District leaders also committed to opening schools and the central office to parents and guardians who might want to use school devices and internet connections to take the plunge and fill out the first-ever online census.

East Aurora Schools’ early engagement with the 2020 census grew out of Superintendent Jennifer Norrell’s participation with the city of Aurora’s Census 2020 Complete Count Committee. Like hundreds of other committees established across the country, Aurora’s team includes a cross section of community members — clergy, nonprofit service providers, local and state government officials, K-12 and higher education representatives, chamber of commerce members, etc. — tasked with spearheading a comprehensive action plan for the city to have a full census count.

“We’re aggressively going after a complete count because it means so much to us in terms of dollars to our community,” says Norrell. “Our district is one that is not property-tax rich. We are heavily funded from our state and federal dollars, so the census means a lot to the district and the city overall.”

Fair allocation

As required by the U.S. Constitution, a census count of every single person living in the United States — regardless of age, race, or legal status — is conducted every 10 years.

An analysis by George Washington University researcher Andrew Reamer finds that responses to the census help determine the fair allocation of more than $800 billion in federal funds to states and communities. That includes support for school programs and services such as special education grants to states, the National School Lunch Program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Head Start.

Funds for services that influence student readiness for learning also are affected, such as child health programs and assistance with housing, heating, and food costs, along with infrastructure allocations for hospitals, roads, and parks.

In addition, the decennial census is used to determine the number of seats in Congress (and relatedly each state’s Electoral College votes) and to redistrict boundaries, affecting state legislatures.

“Especially for school communities, that federal allocation is so important,” says U.S. Census Bureau spokeswoman Victoria Glasier. “If you get a full count, then you’re going to get your full amount for your community [so] that you can then make educated decisions about how you’re going to allocate it.” An undercount of children, however, has a long-term impact, affecting them for the next decade. For many, that’s most of their childhood.

A census worker with a bag that says "U.S. Census" approaches a house

The Census Bureau acknowledges that young children have long been at high risk for not being counted, a problem shared by many other countries. The agency has made the issue a priority. It estimates that in 2010 it missed nearly one in 10 children, birth to age 4, or about 2 million children. That youngest group had the worst undercount of all age groups at 4.6 percent, followed by school-age children ages 5 to 9, with an undercount of 2.2 percent.

The attempt to accurately count young children failed so badly in 2010 that 36 states lost $550 million a year each year from five programs alone — Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, foster care, adoption assistance, and a portion of child care block grants, says Deborah Stein, network director of the Partnership for America’s Children and a member of the Count All Kids Census 2020 campaign.

Risk of being missed

Census research shows that the young children who are at risk of going uncounted most often are children of color, along with children living in “linguistically isolated households,” Stein says, adding, “That’s not necessarily about immigration; it’s about language.” Children living in households headed by grandparents, an adult who’s not a close family relation, highly mobile families, and other “complex” households also are at increased risk of being missed.

In addition, “there’s a significant group of parents who just don’t understand that they should count their child,” Stein says. In messaging research conducted for the Partnership, 10 percent of parents surveyed said they would not include their own child on a census form; 8 percent said they were uncertain about whether they would.

The problem of undercounting children gained more attention with the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Various researchers and advocacy groups, including NSBA, argued that adding the question would frighten noncitizen respondents and those living with them, resulting in a lowered response rate. The Population Reference Bureau estimated that almost one in 10 U.S. households and nearly 45 million people would be at greater risk of not being counted.

Although a Supreme Court ruling in June rejected adding a citizenship question, anxiety still lingers in some communities. “In this area, we have a lot of new immigrants,” says Hafedh Azaiez, superintendent of the Donna Independent School in Texas. “We are right on the border with Mexico, so there’s a lot of fear and misunderstandings.” Through the district’s Parent and Family Engagement Program, “we are trying to do our part to educate our parents and our community” about the census, Azaiez says. “That’s really where our role will be crucial.”

Every Hoosier child counts!

“The undercount says we need to do better in 2020, and that’s what caught my attention,” says Steve Corona, a board member with Indiana’s Fort Wayne Community Schools. As past chair of NSBA’s National Hispanic Council, Corona helped put the census 2020 discussion on the agenda at NSBA’s 2019 Annual Conference.

Because a census that counts every child is integral to schools getting the funding they need to serve all students, he says, “To me, it’s not a political issue. It’s an economics issue.”

That point resonated with Corona’s Indiana School Boards Association (ISBA) colleagues. They brought together more than a dozen statewide associations and agencies that support literacy, early childhood development, and K-12 education in Indiana to form a Complete Count Committee and promote participation in the 2020 census.

In 2010, Indiana had the third-highest census response rate in the nation, says ISBA Executive Director Terry Spradlin, chairman of the Every Hoosier Child Counts! Committee. “We’re proud of that but can do a little bit better and want to maintain that status.”

With that goal, the committee created a three-stage promotional tool kit. It is designed to raise awareness of the census among Indiana’s K-12 constituent community, emphasize its importance to students, parents, and educators, and motivate participation on Census Day on April 1, 2020.

By that date, every home will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 census. Once the invitation arrives, households can respond online, by phone, or by mail.

Along with links to electronic resources (such as the Census Bureau’s Statistics in Schools program, formerly known as Census in Schools), the tool kit provides census-related posters, flyers, and social media messaging. The committee worked with the Indiana Department of Education to translate the messaging from English into 11 languages, including Spanish, French, Arabic, Creole, Burmese, Punjabi, and Yoruba.

“Our target audience is parents, grandparents, foster parents wherever the child may reside, whoever is the guardian of children 0-18,” says Spradlin. “We want the messaging to penetrate at the community level, especially in hard-to-reach areas.”

Team support

Like many school districts, Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools has a growing homeless population that presents a census-count challenge. “We know of approximately 9,000 homeless children in our schools, but daresay there’s probably more,” says Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, the district’s associate superintendent in charge of intergovernmental affairs and community engagement.

With more than 350,000 students, the nation’s fourth-largest school district is co-chair with Miami-Dade County of the region’s census task force. The school system also created its own internal 2020 census work group “to create specific action steps that each of the [district’s] bureaus and their teams can implement to support the effort,” Mendez-Cartaya says.

That includes, for example, the office of communication’s social media and publications products; the IT department’s development of the district’s 2020 census website and identification of the best means to facilitate online completion of the census survey; and the office of academics’ inclusion of additional census-related materials in the curriculum.

The district also is making special efforts to address community concerns about census confidentiality and to stress “in all of our communications, in our dialogue, the issue of privacy,” Mendez-Cartaya says.

She notes that federal regulations specify that census employees cannot ask for money or Social Security information; the information collected only can be used for census counting and is protected for 72 years; and violating these privacy rules comes with penalties of up to $250,000 and/or of up to five years of prison.

The district takes in “15,000 new foreign-born students in a regular year, so you are going to have a lot of people hearing about the census for the first time,” says Miami-Dade Schools spokesman John Schuster.

Education outreach

Although the Census Bureau has had some type of education outreach since 1950, K-12 programming became a key component after the 2010 census, says spokeswoman Glasier, chief of the Statistics in Schools branch.

In preparation for the 2020 Census and Statistics in Schools Week (March 2-6), it’s become “a much wider program” with information going to every superintendent (in October) and every principal (in November) about the online curriculum and its emphasis on statistics literacy. “Given the job market, we know it’s a necessary skill for kids to understand data,” Glasier says.

Two worksheets to promote the census

The free content, maps, and videos are designed to help educators bring statistics to life in math, geography, history, sociology, and English language arts, from lessons showing third-graders how many dentist offices and amusement parks are in their state, to high school-level assignments analyzing minority entrepreneurship and the economy.

New for the 2019-20 school year, the program introduced materials designed for pre-K, K-12 English learners, and adult English learners. The preschool materials are “one of many efforts that we are undertaking to reach that audience,” Glasier says. “We are also partnering with Head Start and the National Association for the Education of Young Children to get the word out.”

An added Statistics in Schools feature is a take-home assignment with every classroom activity to encourage students to continue the discussion about the census at home with their family. Lem Wheeles, the 2018 Alaska History Teacher of the Year, served as a subject-matter expert for the program. A social studies teacher at A.J. Dimond High School in Anchorage, Wheeles says he was impressed with the program’s activities because they use “real information in real time. Students can see census results in so many different areas and learn how that information is used to make decisions in our community and funding decisions by the federal government, and really engage with it in a firsthand, real-world manner.”

In Kentucky, Ryan New and Susanne Cramer, instructional leads for Jefferson County Public Schools, used an inquiry design model to create a census-focused curriculum that aligns with the state’s recently adopted academic standards for social studies. In addition to exploring the history, purpose, value, and barriers impacting the population count, students are charged with proposing “informed action” that might alleviate undercounting and raise awareness of the census.

“It’s really about empowering students,” says New. “If you learn about the census, you may forget it. If you take informed action, it will stay with you forever.”

But getting the census conversation going in many homes “often starts with the kids,” says Dan Barreiro, vice president of East Aurora’s school board and chief community services officer for the city of Aurora. “It’s no different than when your child comes home after learning about recycling in school and becomes the recycling police, telling you, ‘That can’t go in the trash; it has to be recycled!’”

He continues: “They can have that same kind of impact, asking parents, ‘Have we done the census?’ We have to have the kids informed and educate them at a young age about why this is important.”

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