In Pandemic’s Wake, Numbers Tell The Story Of A Devastating Year For Many Chicago Students

A WBEZ analysis shows that Fs spiked and attendance plummeted primarily at high schools serving mostly low-income students.

Kristopher a freshman at Kelly High School
Kristopher, of Kelly High School, is one of a large number of vulnerable students falling behind academically, jeopardizing their path to graduation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Kristopher, of Kelly High School, is one of a large number of vulnerable students falling behind academically, jeopardizing their path to graduation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Kristopher a freshman at Kelly High School
Kristopher, of Kelly High School, is one of a large number of vulnerable students falling behind academically, jeopardizing their path to graduation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

In Pandemic’s Wake, Numbers Tell The Story Of A Devastating Year For Many Chicago Students

A WBEZ analysis shows that Fs spiked and attendance plummeted primarily at high schools serving mostly low-income students.

Kristopher, of Kelly High School, is one of a large number of vulnerable students falling behind academically, jeopardizing their path to graduation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

At the height of the pandemic, even when her school discouraged it, Chicago public high school teacher Anna Lane traveled to her students’ homes to stand on porches and listen to their struggles. Using money she helped raise through a mutual aid fund, she often brought groceries or cash assistance so their families could pay their bills.

Now, days before Chicago Public Schools lets out for the summer, Lane and other teachers are facing an agonizing situation. They have students who missed a lot of class or have done little work, yet they know that some of them have been depressed or overwhelmed by the havoc wrought by the pandemic.

They wonder if giving their students an F is the right thing to do, especially for underclassmen. Research shows just one F in freshman or sophomore year can doom a student’s chances of making it to graduation.

At the same time, Lane and many of her colleagues grapple with passing students without the necessary skills and knowledge.

“So that is the battle I have every day,” said Lane, who teaches at Kelly High School on the Southwest Side in Brighton Park, a working class neighborhood of mostly Latino families. It’s an area where COVID-19 sickness, death and unemployment was especially high.

At Kelly, and all 40 of the Chicago high schools that have almost all low income students, these struggles are particularly intense. On any given day, a quarter of students at these schools did not show up for class, online or in-person, a WBEZ analysis of attendance through the end of third quarter in mid-April finds. Citywide, the average daily attendance rate for the first three quarters of this year is 91%.

Grades at the end of the third quarter were also startlingly low at the 40 schools, which are clustered on the South and West sides. One in every five grades handed out in math or English was an F.

WBEZ’s analysis shows that the rise in Fs and drop in attendance in high schools in general is closely tied to poverty. The greater the poverty level at a school, the greater the spike in Fs and absenteeism. In fact, low-poverty schools saw little change from the past.

In most years, the number of Fs tends to go up in the third quarter in high schools, with many students pulling their grade up at the end of the year to get the credit. But teachers say this year it is different in high-poverty schools.

Not only are students missing assignments, many are simply not coming to class. In the past students might be failing one class. Now, they are failing multiple classes.

“That is what makes me really concerned,” said Alex Seeskin, director of the University of Chicago To&Through Project, which works with Chicago Public Schools and other school districts to use data to increase graduation rates and college completion.

“All of the evidence we have suggests that failure of any kind during those first few years of high school, whether it’s due to a pandemic, or whether it’s due to a normal year and struggling with subjects or having other struggles at home, is really, really hard for students and can be detrimental to their future,” he said.

Seeskin said he’s especially worried about what he calls the “very, very disengaged.” Getting freshmen and sophomores with few credits back into school when they are starting so far behind will be a big challenge.

Chicago Public School leaders say they know this is a serious problem and their “Moving Forward Together” plan released on Wednesday addresses it. The school district has created a “Student Prioritization Index” that takes into account things like failure and attendance rates, as well as community trauma. In laying out the two-year $525 million plan, they said they plan to spend $201 million on students identified through this index. This is part of how CPS plans to spend $1.8 billion it expects in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds.

District leaders will work with schools to use this money to do outreach, provide academic supports, mental health services, additional technology and tutoring in schools where students are failing.

“The pandemic has had an uneven impact on students in various ways, exacerbating racial disparities that already existed in our communities,” CPS’ Chief of Teaching and Learning Sherly Chavarria told the Board of Education last week. “In order to ensure to prioritize students most impacted, we need a shared, data-informed approach to identifying students for supports.”

José Torres, who is expected to take over as interim CEO on July 1, also said re-engaging students is a priority. “Some of the older students have given up, and so we want to welcome them back,” he said. “We want to create opportunities for them.”

But no one has any illusions this will be easy. With so many students so far behind, the big fear is that schools won’t find a way to reach them before it’s too late.

A generation of high schoolers at risk

Outgoing CEO Janice Jackson and other leaders saw this dire situation unfolding. As they laid out worrisome grade and attendance data for the Board of Education members during this pandemic school year, they warned that the school district could lose a whole generation of students.

The good news is that in elementary schools, the number of Fs has not gone up dramatically, though 6th, 7th and 8th graders are seeing some increases. Elementary school students also are logging in and attending classes at about the same clip as they were prior to the pandemic.

But this is not true at high schools attended by the most vulnerable students. For freshman and sophomores, this could set them up for a difficult journey ahead.

Kristopher, a sophomore at Kelly High School, is one of them.

freshman Kristopher at Kelly High School
Last year, when the pandemic shut down schools, Kristopher was doing fairly well. But his grades dropped as his family faced job loss and he struggled with stress and depression. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Last year, as a freshman, he started out OK. “As, Bs, a C here and there,” said Kristopher. WBEZ isn’t using his last name to protect his privacy.

What got him excited was the Dungeons and Dragons club he started with some friends at his school, something other than sports to get into.

Kristopher said the club found a teacher to sponsor and put up fliers all around the school. With a smile, he said it was good marketing, courtesy of him, that led to the first meeting drawing about 30 students.

“I didn’t really care for school but after we implemented the club, I was like ‘OK, I don’t want to miss anymore,’ so I kind of stopped skipping school and just kept on focusing more,” he said.

Then, in March of 2020, school and all that went with it came to a screeching halt because of the pandemic. Kristopher alternated between wanting to do well to feeling depressed and overwhelmed.

“It was awful,” he said about last summer. “All I was doing was being in bed playing video games.”

Also, during this time, his dad lost his job, as so many did during the pandemic. His dad wanted to find him a therapist, who he had seen previously for mental health issues. But there wasn’t money for it. He also was worried about paying the bills. “We were really struggling for quite a bit. I could see the stress in my dad’s eyes,” Kristopher said.

Kristopher said he did OK when school first started, but by second quarter, his grades plummeted to Ds and Fs. At one point, for a whole week, he couldn’t bring himself to log into class at all. Then, when he went back, he was overwhelmed by all the missing assignments.

“I was distraught,” he said. “It is a very big change going from three As, two Bs, the rest Cs to all Fs. … It was awful. You are like ‘What is going on here?’ It was mentally terrible.”

Some of the teachers would suggest that students talk to the counselor or an assistant principal about their feelings, but Kristopher didn’t do it. He said teachers would remind him about missing work over emails or phone calls. But he could easily ignore them.

Kristopher’s struggles with depression have been all too common during the pandemic, along with a loss of motivation while isolated at home. At the same time, other students were distracted by managing their households and taking care of younger brothers or sisters while their parents worked. Others got discouraged because they couldn’t figure out how to do challenging work on their own.

Take Quincy, a junior at Austin High School, who also had straight Fs at the end of the third quarter. He said he spent two weeks sick and has had trouble making up work. He emailed teachers to tell them what was going on, but he said only one acknowledged it or asked how he was doing.

Like a lot of other teenagers, Quincy also got a job at Mariano’s to help his mother pay the bills. He would often work hours that overlapped with classes. WBEZ also isn’t using his last name to protect his privacy.

Both Kristopher and Quincy signed up for in-person learning for the fourth quarter, starting in mid-April. When they were gearing up to go, they were enthusiastic about the prospect of turning things around.

“It is wonderful,” Kristopher said after the first week. “The teachers are so considerate.”

Kristopher and Quincy both say they value the chance to make up missed lessons and perhaps turn those Fs into passing grades. Yet they are inconsistent about showing up. If there’s one thing they have learned from this past year, it is much easier to stay in bed than make their way to school.

Returning to class

For disengaged younger students, returning to schools for in-person classes this spring may have helped.

But for most Chicago Public high schools it doesn’t appear to have made much of a difference, especially at the schools whose students were most disconnected.

Only about a third of students were expected back starting in mid-April. And, of those, teachers say few are showing up consistently. Lane says she only has a few showing up in-person in each class. That’s left her a full year of dealing with remote learning.

As is the case with most high school teachers, Lane didn’t require students to turn on their video camera. Many students didn’t want to unmute themselves. Most of the interaction in class has been through the chat.

“I’ve tried my best to connect with them … to learn how they are as students as human beings, and it’s very difficult through this remote learning experience,” Lane said.

Lane credits her school’s administration for trying to connect with parents and offering students online tutoring if they were struggling. Yet, the average daily attendance dropped from about 90% in 2019 to 79% through the third quarter of this year.

And third quarter grades were particularly low: 20% of freshmen and 38% of sophomores were failing English. Thirty percent of freshmen and nearly 40% of sophomores were failing math.

“The numbers are hard to look at,” Lane said.

Lane said she wishes the school district would have allowed teachers to give students an “incomplete” grade or something that might increase their odds of recovering from the failure.

“We are supposed to have grace and compassion,” she said. “How can I grade a student when there’s life right now that is a lot more important than showing up to class or turning in an assignment?”

Schools across the city are struggling with the same dilemma, said Adelric McCain, the director of equity and impact with the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success. The Network for College Success works with schools across the city to help them support freshmen.

“I know that a lot of people are overwhelmed by the magnitude of both the problem and all of the pieces that go into this problem, a lot of them are out of our actual control,” McCain said.

And the stakes are high: When students fail classes and get behind in credits, they often feel there’s too much ground to make up to graduate high school. Then, they drop out.

McCain said instead of focusing on making up classes, schools should teach students the skills and knowledge they need and then allow them to give credits for that. He said they should abandon the traditional idea that the only way to earn credit is for a student to sit in a class and turn in work, in addition to passing tests.

“They should be able to reach out to students and say, ‘Hey, listen, you’re not falling through the cracks. I’m going to request and expect you to do some work to show me what you know, but I am not going to punish you for what you don’t know,’ ” he said.

If students have gaps in knowledge, that is what schools should be addressing, he said.

Some schools in Chicago and across the state already use this approach, which is called competency-based or standards-based education. But to implement something like this across the board, the school district would need to put in place new policies and practices.

This year, Chicago Public Schools is letting all elementary and middle school students move to the next grade, whether they pass their classes or not.

But when it comes to high school students, where the spike in Fs is concentrated and where the consequences can be most dire, the Board of Education made no special provisions for students who fail. The only thing they have done is approve a policy making it more difficult for teachers to change grades.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

Mary Hall produced this story for digital. Follow her @hall_marye.