CPS attendance is heading back up, with a group of Little Village students leading the way
Attendance has rebounded after plummeting last year, but hasn’t fully recovered. An early-college program is helping to keep students on track.
CPS attendance is heading back up, with a group of Little Village students leading the way
Attendance has rebounded after plummeting last year, but hasn’t fully recovered. An early-college program is helping to keep students on track.By Sarah Karp
One by one, students in Little Village’s Infinity Math, Science & Technology High School were called to the front of their psychology class to present a speech titled, “Who Am I?”
One teen, Oscar Hernandez, dressed in an oversized blue hoodie, shared this about himself: “If something is hard, I never give up,” he said on a recent winter morning. “Life has taught me a lot, and it’s all about keep on going. And if you don’t push yourself then who will?”
His classmates broke into a round of applause and a slow smile spread across Oscar’s face.
To Kyle Birch, their teacher, seeing these students consistently show up for class, after a full year of remote learning, is a victory. And hearing them say how they learned to persevere through the pandemic is extra special.
Much has been said about the impact of the pandemic on education, especially for students who spent a lot of time learning remotely. For high school students with a few years left before graduation, getting off track can be especially harmful.
Last year, an analysis of CPS data by WBEZ showed attendance and grades plummeted, especially the schools with almost all low-income students. An analysis of first semester data from this school year shows more students coming to class regularly, but attendance hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Average daily high school attendance was about 88% prior to the pandemic, according to CPS data. Last year, it dipped to 81%. First semester this year, it was almost 85%, a WBEZ analysis of CPS data shows.
Small high schools like Infinity, which has almost 400 students, maintained attendance during the pandemic at a higher rate than many other schools. At Infinity, average daily attendance rate was 87% for the 2020-2021 school year. This year, it is up to 90%, just about 2 points shy of where it was in 2018-2019.
“Kids did struggle in 8th grade remotely, but that was not necessarily what was happening in the long run and now they are able to get it back together,” said Sarah Howard, the senior director at the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success. Her group works with 17 CPS high schools and are seeing a significant rebound in attendance, especially among freshmen.
But at some neighborhood schools serving low-income students where attendance has improved, the rates are still worrisome. At the 22 high schools with almost all low-income students, the average attendance rate is still only about 80%
This is better than the year before, when attendance was 73% on average at those schools. Pre-pandemic, most of these schools also had attendance rates below the city average.
CPS officials say they are watching attendance carefully. In a statement, they said “daily class attendance is a powerful predictor of student engagement and academic outcomes.” They said they will review current attendance supports to see what is working and are committed to “improving and expanding on those methods that are working to help students return — and stay — in the classroom.”
School leaders might look to Infinity as an example of what is making a difference.
Ninety four percent of the students are low-income and nearly all are Latino. Birch, the psychology teacher, said he was particularly worried about his juniors. They are part of the school’s new and challenging early-college program, with the potential to graduate with a high school diploma and an associates degree.
Of the 35 that started as freshmen, 25 remain as juniors in the program. To stay, they need to earn Cs or higher.
“I just think that it is remarkable during a pandemic,” said Birch, a lanky blond who taught the students social science 101 and is now teaching them psychology 101.
He thinks the students were able to persevere because the program makes them feel special and they’re part of a close knit group. No one wanted to be left out or left behind.
“It is like this collective resiliency,” Birch said. “They have each other and I honestly think that they may not have made it through without each other.”
Their teachers also stayed on them and gave them a lot of grace. The assignment deadlines were extended and teachers often met students during their own time to help.
Howard, from the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, said she hopes flexibility is one lesson learned from the pandemic. And she sees it actually happening. In the schools the network works with, there are more freshmen with B averages despite having relatively low attendance.
The Infinity students in the early college program didn’t test in or achieve a certain grade point average to earn a spot, unlike what’s required at some other CPS speciality programs. Instead, these students simply enrolled at Infinity, heard about the opportunity and decided to go for it.
But it was never going to be easy. Birch said many students were below grade level, but the staff believed they could push them to get that associate’s degree.
However, midway in their freshman year, the pandemic hit and school shut down. Nearly all of them spent sophomore year in remote learning.
Teaching from her bedroom last year, their English teacher Sarah Coogan lamented how difficult it was to connect.
One day, for 50 minutes, she read a stanza from Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” and asked question after question. Then, she waited in silence for someone — anyone — to answer. Eventually a voice would emerge from a black box (they did not have to be on camera) and offer something up.
After the class, Coogan sat back in her chair, exhausted, and half laughed.
“If I am being totally honest when the kids don’t answer, my heart starts beating fast and I am like, ‘How can I present this in a way that will work,’” she said. Coogan marveled that it took so much more energy to teach online than in person, even though online she basically spent the day sitting in a chair in her apartment.
But she knew school was not the top priority of many students. Little Village was hit hard by the pandemic. At many points last year, it led the city in deaths and infection rates.
Marlene Benancio, one of Birch’s students, was in the center of it. Sitting outside the desolate high school building last year on a windy October afternoon, Marlene said her outlook had turned bleak. Her grandfather had recently died of COVID-19, she lost her part time job and her mother, the sole breadwinner, was in danger of being laid off.
“COVID has only given you two options … stay at home and feel stressed out or go outside and get the disease and maybe die,” she said.
Her grandfather had tutored her and she was worried that, without him, she couldn’t get good grades. Marlene kept showing up to classes, despite the difficulties and doubts.
But other students got out of the habit of coming regularly. Aldo Fernandez said he missed as many as 10 classes a month. He especially struggled to go to Ms. Coogan’s class, which was one of his first classes of the day.
“What was the point of turning your camera on and sitting in front of the computer for seven hours plus?” he said.
Aldo and several other students said they felt isolated and lonely.
“I am equal”
By fall, Aldo’s world had changed. Coming back to school this September was “amazing,” he said.
“It was really refreshing to finally be able to interact with other people and talk to my teachers and I feel like the support system I had really encouraged me,” he said.
Aldo was fortunate his teachers let him turn in late work last year and did not have a strict absentee policy.
At Kelly High School on the Southwest Side, teacher Anna Lane said she and teachers there and at other schools are being asked to let the students make up work so that they can pass.
“The push for us is that we should practice compassion and kindness, which I totally agree with,” she said.
Kelly is one of the high schools with low-income students that is still struggling with attendance this year. Lane said her students have been sick a lot this year. There are also some students who got used to doing school from home and now have trouble making it to class, especially for a 7:45 a.m. start
“It is definitely a huge issue,” she said. “Some of our students were struggling pre-pandemic and they need to be in class so we can help them out.”
Lane said it can be off putting to some teachers when absent students suddenly show up and ask to do missing work. They worry about accountability.
“The way I think about it is, at least they care about getting their work done,” she said.
For the student’s in Infinity’s pre-college classes, there is less flexibility because they’re following City Colleges of Chicago curriculums.
Making strict deadlines is a struggle for some students after a year in remote learning, Birch said. These teenagers left school as freshmen during the pandemic and returned junior year and were told they were college students, Birch said.
“It is crazy,” Birch said. “I had multiple kids that were crying those first couple of weeks, because they’re just like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Birch said they needed to be reminded they could do it, that they had already passed some English and math college classes and that teachers and classmates were there for them.
Marlene, in particular, struggled with deadlines and the stress. At one point, she literally passed out.
But her friends had her back and pushed her forward. As time went on, and she completed assignments, she became more and more confident.
In a recent psychology class, she confidently flipped through a dense article, seeking the answer to a question about the characteristics of psychologists. Around her neck hangs her grandfather’s gold chain, giving her strength but also reminding her what she can now do on her own.
“It is rare for me to actually feel secure about myself, especially what I think,” Marlene said. “Normally I feel like everyone is my superior, but for once in this class I feel like I am equal to someone.”
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.