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All hands needed on deck to get Chicago school kids back on course post-pandemic

Students at the city’s lowest-income high schools have received an alarming number of failing grades, and that’s real reason to worry about their future.

Students at Senn High School in Edgewater in April 2021.
High school students returned to class in April.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It’s been crystal clear for months that the pandemic has wreaked havoc with education, as with the rest of society, and our kids will need every ounce of support schools can muster to get back on track academically.

We already knew, for instance, that large numbers of students initially failed to log on regularly to the Chicago Public Schools’ virtual learning platform, though the numbers improved over time. Still, some students rarely or never logged on at all, and we’re convinced that online learning — always a distant second-best to in-person teaching — was just too frustrating. In some cases, a lack of reliable internet access was a problem.

Hundreds of students, perhaps thousands, likely just gave up on school altogether.

We know, as well, that online attendance has never been as high as classroom attendance before the pandemic.

And once schools began to reopen in late February, the majority of parents did not send their children back to the classroom. Lingering fears about the continued spread of the coronavirus were just too great.

A flurry of F’s

Now, just as the school year is drawing to a close, there’s more alarming evidence of the pandemic’s negative impact: At the 40 lowest-income high schools, which serve mostly Black and Latino children on the South and West sides, one in five grades in math and English was an F, a WBEZ analysis of CPS data on third-quarter grades found. Far more students are failing multiple classes than in previous years.

Attendance was poor, as well: On any given day, WBEZ found, a quarter of students in these schools didn’t show up for class, either online or in person.

Indeed, teachers struggled with giving out so many failing grades, knowing that students were stressed out. Maybe a father lost his job. Maybe a mom got sick or even died of COVID-19. Maybe the teen had to get a part-time job to help pay the family bills.

But in the end, teachers knew they couldn’t honestly allow a student to pass if he or she hadn’t finished the assignments or showed up to class regularly.

“So that is the battle I have every day,” as Kelly High School teacher Anna Lane told WBEZ.

All hands on deck

One semester with an alarming number of F’s may not sound like cause for alarm. But down the road, the city’s hard-won uptick in high school graduation rates is at stake. Landmark research by the University of Chicago has shown that every failing grade given to a freshman puts that student at much higher risk for eventually dropping out.

“Given what we know about freshman year, this means that there are a lot of freshmen, more than in previous years, who are failing, failing multiple classes,” as Alex Seeskin of the University of Chicago’s To&Through Project, which help high schools keep students on track to graduate, told us.

“From what we know about the predictive nature [of grades], this could mean a decrease in graduation,” he said. “There is every reason to be concerned.”

CPS has released details of its plans to address students’ social and emotional needs and get them back on track academically in the coming months. The district has $1.8 billion in federal education funding that must be used for these COVID-19 recovery efforts.

Summer school programs will be expanded, for one. Summer programs are voluntary this year, but there’s a strong case to be made that, with so many students lagging behind, more students should sign up to attend.

Another initiative will send $525 million to schools in communities that experienced the worst of the pandemic, to provide more social and emotional programs, mental health support and other resources.

Getting students re-engaged

All in all, CPS’ educational recovery plans make sense, Seeskin noted. But it’s worth emphasizing another point he made: Extracurricular activities will be essential to get students re-engaged in school — and ultimately, earning better grades.

“I’m a big believer that at least part of the answer lies outside [focusing on] traditional core subjects,” Seeskin told us. “Put a lot of money in extracurricular activities so they come back strong, so students have the opportunity to engage in activities they find most meaningful, like sports, arts, the chess club.”

“Make sure there’s time, that adults [in charge] are paid, that there’s opportunity for them to re-engage” with school, he said.

There’s no denying the chaos caused by the pandemic. But there’s every reason to believe that, with the right support, kids can overcome.

“Don’t meet students with a deficit mindset,” Seeskin said. “Value the learning they did do during the pandemic— not just the learning they did about themselves, but about their families and the world.”

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