When Portland schools began the 2020-21 school year in distance learning, educators at Ida B. Wells High knew they would need to change their approach to teaching.
It took longer to build a relationship with the new students on a screen, principal Filip Hristic said. But teachers felt they had made some progress in the middle of the year, he said, adding that students said they felt they had a good relationship with their teachers.
Why, then, have so many people not taken the courses?
“They felt connected with their teachers, but they didn’t feel connected with their classmates,” Hristic said. “What we really needed to do a better job was to help kids connect with their peers.”
About 93% of Wells ninth grade students completed their first year of high school with at least six credits in 2021, enough to be considered on track to graduate and a key predictor that a student will do so in the four years. This is a decrease of 2 percentage points from 2019, according to data released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education.
But Latino students and students with disabilities saw much larger declines at the Southwest Portland school, a trend that is reflected in Portland public schools.
District-wide, one in four Black and Latino freshmen finished the year late to graduate, as did nearly one in three Pacific Islander ninth graders and nearly 60% Native Americans. More than a quarter of students with disabilities also started their second year with a lack of credit towards graduation.
And those losses came even after the district used its $ 300 million share of public funding to boost summer credit clawback efforts.
Franklin, Jefferson, and Grant High Schools saw a minor overall decline in the percentage of grade nine students who started their second year on track.
At Roosevelt and McDaniel High Schools, both of which have a higher concentration of low-income black and Latino students than other schools in the district, rates have dropped much more drastically.
District officials said some of the hardest to reach students were those who found jobs to keep family finances afloat and those who ended up watching over their younger siblings while their parents worked.
Shawn Bird, the assistant district superintendent for training, told The Oregonian / OregonLive that counselors and social workers have contacted parents or made house calls – or porch visits, to be more specific – when teachers reported that a student was not signing in for class or struggled with class.
“You have to diagnose the problem that is why there is this academic disparity,” Bird said.
Wells High had a student engagement coach who handed out Chromebooks to students and a social worker who helped families navigate housing resources, Hristic said. And while checking in with the students, Southwest Portland counselors discovered another factor limiting the participation of ninth graders in distance learning.
“A lot of our students have had mental health issues,” Hristic said. “And what people seem to forget is that we were all moving – nationally, state level – through an incredibly traumatic experience.”
Hristic and Bird noted that ninth graders who started high school in fall 2020 faced a steeper learning curve than their older classmates.
Hristic recalls a recent little conversation he had with a Wells High elder who told him that she hadn’t felt like a student for almost two years. Of course, the school was in session in the spring and fall of 2020, but so was the pandemic.
“She was coming back to a place where she was frozen in time in second year,” Hristic said. “And it made me realize that some of our ninth grade students haven’t been to school since they were in seventh grade.”
In non-pandemic years, incoming high school students across the district go through a kind of soft start called Leap into Ninth Grade, during which they tour the building to meet their new teachers and classmates before the start of school to help them adjust to a new school.
The class of 2025 didn’t have that, but instead experienced the added stress of moving into a more rigorous academic environment as their introduction to high school was done almost exclusively through a screen.
The setup also meant that students had fewer opportunities to interact with their classmates. Hristic said educators noticed how small conversations during and between classes, for example, provided the kind of break students needed to relax so they could absorb what they had just learned. .
Several students also reported feeling uncomfortable turning on their cameras during virtual lessons. Some said it seemed intrusive to them. Others said he felt isolated turning theirs on only to see their heads float among a sea of black boxes on their computer screens.
“Where before, learning was a social experience – it was social mediation, social enrichment – it was all of a sudden this private experience, which seems very different,” Hristic said.
Bird saw a similar pattern unfold across the district.
“They didn’t have the typical first year,” he said. “They had access to all the classes, but they didn’t have the socio-emotional experience that people have in high school.
That’s why Portland high schools expanded the Leap program this year to allow sophomores as well as ninth graders to participate. District leaders, echoing advice from the Oregon Department of Education, also asked educators to assess and respond to students’ social and emotional needs before their academic needs.
Bird said educators who work with students with disabilities spent the first few weeks of classes reviewing their individualized education plans, assessing how they might need tweaking and going from there.
“It’s important that we have immediate contact with these kids to see what the problem is and get them back on track,” Bird said.
At Wells High, Hristic said the first few weeks of the new academic year have proven how the pandemic has disrupted the routines of students beyond academics.
The students were much more withdrawn and uncertain of their environment at the start of the lessons. But when the school’s annual student club fair was in full swing earlier this week, Hristic saw students fall back into familiar patterns.
They started the conversation a little faster than before and seemed more at ease. And the more comfortable students feel in the classroom, Hristic said, the easier it will be for them to focus on their lessons.
“What we need to focus on is building relationships first and over time increasing expectations and rigor,” he said. “We really want to make sure this looks like a supportive, nurturing environment.”
–Eder Campuzano | 503-221-4344 | @edercampuzano | Eder on Facebook
Eder is the education reporter for the Oregonian. Do you have a tip about Portland public schools? E-mail [email protected].