Four months after The Associated Press wrote about an Atlanta family struggling to enroll in school, all of the children — in a complete turnaround — returned to class last month. The project on Monday was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The youngest child, an energetic 8-year-old girl, had never attended school before. On her first day, she was greeted at her home by a half dozen children from around the apartment block, who escorted her to the bus stop, her mother said.

"I was most excited for her," said Tameka. "My other children, they know what school's like. I want that experience for her."

(Tameka is her middle name. The AP has withheld her full name because she runs the risk of jail time or losing custody since her kids haven't been in school.)

The final child, a student with Down syndrome, started school last Tuesday, Tameka said.

Thousands of students went missing from American classrooms during the pandemic and online learning. For Tameka's four children, the disruption in schooling lasted four years. Crippling poverty, onerous paperwork and her depression stood in the way of resuming their education — or starting it for the first time.

Atlanta Public Schools received $332 million in federal recovery money to help students rebound from pandemic learning loss and return to school. But school staff had largely stopped trying to contact Tameka's family until an AP reporter started inquiring about them last year, according to communication logs shared by the district.

Tameka often lacked a working phone, but the district relied on phone messages and made only one home visit over more than three years, records show. (AP journalists visited Tameka at her home to communicate with her.)

After AP published its story about Tameka and continued making inquiries, the school contacted the state's child welfare department at least once, according to district spokesman Seth Coleman. In March, child services threatened to remove her children if they weren't in school by mid-April, Tameka said.

That same month, Tameka received a hefty check from the federal government, thanks to a refundable child tax credit, enabling her to replace a broken phone and run errands necessary to complete the complicated paperwork to register her children.

Tameka's three older children — ages 9, 13 and 14 — didn't return to in-person school when Atlanta reopened in the fall of 2021. The school district removed the children from the rolls when they missed 10 straight days, citing a state regulation.

Months later, Tameka tried sending two of her children to school, not realizing they no longer had a place at their elementary and middle schools.

Re-enrolling them felt impossible. In addition to filing an application, Atlanta requires a minimum of eight documents to register a child for school, including a notarized affidavit.

Tameka had lost most of her family's official documents when her partner died of a heart attack in May 2020, at the height of pandemic chaos. He was carrying the family's birth certificates, Medicaid cards and Social Security cards in a backpack that was lost at the hospital.

Without his income, and unable to work because she needed to watch the young children, Tameka had little money. The family of five got by on food stamps and $900 a month in government assistance.
When phones or their chargers broke, she couldn't afford to replace them.

So when she received a refundable tax credit of around $6,000 in March, it was a much-needed opportunity to buy a new phone. "I was mobile again. I could use the phone to call an Uber or Lyft," said Tameka, who doesn't have a driver's license and lives far from public transit.

Around the same time, a social worker with Georgia's Division of Family and Children's Services visited Tameka. Atlanta Public Schools apparently flagged the agency after the AP story ran and a reporter continued to inquire about Tameka's family. Agency caseworkers had visited about six months earlier and urged Tameka to get the kids into school. This time they gave her a deadline — April 15.

If she failed to enroll them, case workers would place her children in foster care, they told her.

The deadline helped focus Tameka, who had already considered the school year, which ends May 24, to be lost. "I wanted them to start fresh – with everyone else," she said. "But they had other ideas," she said, referring to the child welfare social workers.

After the December story about Tameka's struggle to enroll her children in school, an Atlanta Public Schools social worker visited her home in January — the first attempted in-person contact by the district in nearly three years, according to school records. When the case worker didn't find her at home, they left a flier asking her to call them, according to spokesman Seth Coleman.

After that, the district said it planned to investigate the family's residency. The practice has become more common since 2008, when the Atlanta School Board sought to prevent parents living in other parts of town from sending their children to schools located in gentrified neighborhoods.

"We're going to do a more extensive review of all the facts we have to determine if the family resides within Atlanta Public School boundaries, and if so, in which school zone," Coleman wrote in an email in April. "Our people have done EVERYTHING they can to help this parent and this family and continue to do so."

Over the course of reporting the story, the AP visited Tameka and her family at their Atlanta apartment half a dozen times, often showing up unannounced because Tameka lacked a working phone. Neighbors and building employees often knew her whereabouts when she didn't answer the door. Her residence was never in doubt.

Tameka was surprised to hear the district was questioning whether she lives in Atlanta and whether her children were eligible to attend their schools. "I'm not trying to run or hide," she said. "They're acting like I'm trying to hide or I'm a criminal."

Still, Tameka acknowledges how her depression and feelings of being overwhelmed clouded her judgment and ability to solve problems. "I never asked for help," she said. "I was trying to do things by myself."

When they enrolled, the four children took tests to see what grade they should enter. And the district has offered the children spots in summer school, Tameka said.

But their place in school is still provisional. The district admitted them without all of their documentation. Tameka had 30 days to take each child to the doctor and fill out a state-mandated health certificate evaluating their nutrition, eyesight, hearing and dental health.

She hasn't made all the appointments yet.