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Making the connection between virtual learning, grades and getting into a good high school

With COVID-19 now surging, some students may have to go back to remote learning in January — and that puts them at risk for plummeting grades, a WBEZ analysis found.

Staff at Morgan Park High School prepare laptops to be distributed to students before the start of classes in September 2020.
Staff at Morgan Park High School prepare laptops to be distributed to students before the start of classes in September 2020.
Sun-Times file

With COVID-19 now surging, it’s not surprising that Chicago Public Schools is buying a stockpile of laptops in anticipation of switching to more remote learning classes in January.

The number of cases reported among students and teachers more than tripled before the winter break began, so the district’s decision makes sense. Even so, it’s disheartening to think some students may have to huddle again in front of electronic screens for lessons — a situation that many children struggled mightily with last year.

The two bright spots: CPS doesn’t anticipate having to switch to full remote learning districtwide. And with its purchase of 100,000 laptops, every student who does end up in remote learning again will have easier access to a new device, instead of the older or damaged laptops some students ended up with last year.

Should remote learning become necessary again, it’s got to be better this time around — with engaging lessons and social-emotional support for students. Students must be fully engaged, so their grades don’t plummet as happened in too many schools last year.

Getting into elite high schools

Poor grades are especially problematic for older elementary school students who are seeking admission to one of the city’s top selective high schools.

CPS has made strides in improving neighborhood high schools, and that’s a plus. But many parents and students still aim to get into an “elite” school, like Whitney Young or Jones College Prep.

Who can blame them, when those schools have more resources — including from fundraising — to offer “extras” like foreign language classes and sports programs? For a lower-income kid from, say, Garfield Park or South Chicago, the chance to go to Walter Payton College Prep is often worth the hourslong commute.

Yet last year, when remote learning upended education, poor grades became far more common among lower-income students — and that could well threaten those students’ chances to get into selective schools, as WBEZ recently reported.

“I think about this daily,” one worried mother told WBEZ about her son’s performance in seventh grade, when he struggled with virtual learning. “He’s of an age where it is hard for him to really focus with a computer.” Another mom described her child’s remote learning experience as “horrible, horrible.”

Clearly, it was horrible for other children, too. At schools with mostly low-income students, As and Bs fell by 10 percentage points between 2019 and 2021, WBEZ found, while Ds and Fs jumped 10 points.

Making every school a good option

It’s unclear whether CPS might tweak the selective school admissions process to account for the pandemic’s impact on grades. But pandemic or not, one change that makes sense is an admissions lottery for all students who meet a certain academic threshold.

When so many high-achieving students vie to get into a few schools, the line between admission and being shut out becomes ever smaller — and those students whose parents can afford tutoring and similar resources to give them that final edge get the advantage.

“Once you get above a certain threshold, then the whole idea of meritocracy becomes questionable,” as Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, put it. “At some point, what is the real difference between a 4.0 and 3.9 GPA?”

To give students more choices, CPS has had some success in improving its neighborhood high schools, such as offering more IB programs and Advanced Placement classes. Military and charter high schools are also options.

Research has shown that academic outcomes, such as high school graduation and college admission, are just as good for students who attend high-performing neighborhood or charter high schools as for students from top selective high schools, Allensworth pointed out.

That’s especially true for students in IB programs. A Consortium study found that graduates of IB programs in neighborhood high schools had stronger academic outcomes — they were more likely to go to top universities and earned better college grades — than students from the city’s selective high schools.

Making sure elite high schools are accessible is important.

It’s more important to make every high school elite.

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