On a recent sunny morning, Miracle Moss, the principal at Chicago’s Rowe-Clark High School, climbs in her car to drive around the West Side looking for her students. She brings along laptops and homework packets for the seven to 10 teens on her list.
The students aren’t turning in schoolwork. Some aren’t showing up for remote class either. She wants to check in and remind them that in-person school is starting the following week. Her Humboldt Park charter school enrolls nearly 400 mostly Black students.
The first student is Miguel, a junior who hasn’t been turning in assignments. Moss asked not to use his last name to protect his privacy.
Miguel walks slowly toward her from the back door of the gray brick building where he lives. She calls out his name with excitement. He wears a black hoodie and sweatpants, and looks like he just woke up. Moss is not there to scold him. Instead, she acts more like a concerned aunt. She jokes with him, makes herself approachable.
They agree he’s got some catching up to do. ”It’s a lot. That’s all I can say, a lot,” Miguel says. “I have been falling off track. So I got to pick up all my stuff.”
He is not the only student falling behind. All year long, public school officials in Chicago and across the country have worried about high school students who have been chronically absent and are getting Fs during pandemic remote learning.
The Noble Network of Charter Schools, one of the city’s top charter school networks with 18 schools, including Rowe-Clark, has not been immune. Rowe-Clark’s latest attendance figure is around 67%. That’s down from 90% in 2019, before the pandemic.
Several other Noble high schools also experienced major attendance declines, including Golder, DRW and Bulls — all serve mostly Black and Latino students. Noble officials say their attendance data may not fully capture all students who are present and doing assignments.
Noble has been trying a range of new things to reach these students.
All Noble students started the school year learning remotely, but the network offered students a flexible schedule if needed. This is a newer tack for Noble, which has historically been quite strict and rigid. School buildings gradually began welcoming students who were struggling a few weeks after the school year began. Students get to school later, receive tutoring and a quiet place to work.
“We reached out to those kids directly,” Moss says, adding that initially about 20 students weren’t doing well online.
Most traditional Chicago Public Schools are not that flexible, with high schoolers expected to be learning remotely up to seven hours a day, including breaks. The main strategy to re-engage struggling kids has been to keep calling and emailing them. District officials pushed for in-person learning under a hybrid model all year as the best way to reconnect with kids.
One student at a time
As Moss continues her door knocking on Chicago’s West Side, one of her main goals is to remind students that in-person instruction is starting the following week. It’s Moss’ first trip out to visit students. Other staff came out earlier in the year.
In-person classes will start at 12:30 pm. Students with Fs who need help can come at 11 a.m. Those students can also get in-person tutoring after class.
But even with a more flexible schedule and one-on-one support, it’s hard to get students back in school buildings.
Miguel is among a few dozen teens recently flagged who needed a reminder. He says the pandemic has been hard on him and his family.
“My [mom], she has been back and forth for jobs. They won’t fire her, but then they’ll have her on like notice,” Miguel says. “So she has been working with my stepdad, and that’s where I’ll be working with him to try to make a little money.”
Talking outside, Moss invites Miguel to come to school for extra help.
Miguel nods in approval. “I need somebody to help me with all of that stuff,” he says. “Because, if I do it by myself, I know I am going to forget about it. I just am not going to do it. [I’m] trying to get help so I will stay on track.”
At Rowe-Clark, Moss says her staff, including two social workers, keep checking in on students. Moss goes over some of the work that Miguel needs to complete. She also swaps his old computer for a newer one. He says he’s been trying to do school work on his phone because of technical issues.
Other students Moss visits say they don’t like doing school work remotely.
“What we are doing now is not school. What we were doing originally is actually school,” says Semaj Ransfer, a sophomore. He waits quietly outside by the gate near his front door while Moss and his grandmother, Claretha Pendleton, talk about a plan to help him bring his grades up.
Moss says he was doing well but eventually began falling behind in one class. Semaj says he’s been distracted playing ball and sometimes the internet doesn’t work. He says he also feels unsafe because of street violence. His grandmother worries about Semaj’s safety going to school.
“It’s hard out here for these young men,” Pendleton says. “It really is. I mean they struggle almost every day just to even go to the store. He is a good young man. Very smart.”
Moss offers to take him to school.
It’s hard to tell how well Moss’ efforts are paying off. In the third quarter, overall student GPAs are up slightly compared to last year when the pandemic first hit. Data from standardized tests is not available.
Moss says when it comes to whether kids are engaged, she looks beyond attendance figures.
“If our kids are submitting the assignments, they are going to class or they are doing the work asynchronously, that is the big picture if our kids are actually on or off track,” Moss says.
In-person school resumes
On the first day of in-person school the following week, 101 students returned.
But that number quickly dropped, as it has at other schools. Moss says on average more than 50 students have been showing up on any given day. That means about 85% of students are still learning from home. Moss says they also give those students individualized support.
Moss’ efforts might be paying off little by little. Most of the students she visited the week before are back in-person, including Semaj. Miguel is sticking with remote learning. But he’s passing all his classes, she says. Still, in one long morning, she was only able to visit a handful of her students.
Moss says the pandemic has pushed her to think creatively about how to connect with all her students moving forward. The traditional way of doing things doesn’t work for every student, she says.
“This pandemic has really pushed us to reimagine education, and reimagine teaching and what that looks like,” Moss says. “And it has also pushed [us] to dig inside [our] creative tool box. … The beauty is trying to reimagine what that could look like for every kid and not just a subset of kids.”