On Tuesday, the Manchester, New Hampshire School District announced tentative plans to expand in-person classes from two days a week to four, starting in May. And at Manchester West High School in Manchester, that experiment is well underway.
For over a month, staff there have been encouraging students who are learning English as a second language and others needing extra help to come in four days a week.
And getting students re-engaged a year into the pandemic is a massive effort.
When West High School Senior Sultan Abdul Aziz walks into school, his first stop is a temperature station in the front lobby. On his way to class in hallways divided by blue tape for social distancing, staff greet him like an old friend.
Abdul Aziz’ nickname to some is “The Mayor.” He’s conversational in so many languages - Sindhi, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic - that he can joke around with students from all over the world.
Abdul Aziz’ family immigrated to Manchester from the United Arab Emirates five years ago, and he credits the city’s school for helping him overcome his shyness and feel like he belonged.
“When I came here I was the shiest boy,” he laughs. “Slowly slowly - I love talking now. See? I talk like a parrot!”
Abdul Aziz loves the connections he has with teachers and friends here, but these days, he’s rarely in the building. He says he and his family are terrified of catching COVID-19. So for much of this school year, they stayed home.
Abdul Aziz is the oldest son of eight kids. And in addition to logging into his classes, he’s overseeing his siblings’ virtual learning.
“You feel like you’re in the zoo,” he says. His little sisters often ask for help when their screen is frozen or they don’t understand the math assignment.
“There’s one - she’s super genius, she’s awesome, but sometimes she needs help and she will come to me, but she’s genius. The other one, she closes her computer, she is sleeping,” he laughs.
Staying awake and motivated in virtual class can be hard, especially if you’re still learning how to speak and read English. And with so many distractions, Abdul Aziz is falling behind in his own classes. In the fall, his teachers connected him with tutors from St. Anselm College, who are working virtually with students from across the district to help them organize and complete their assignments.
And this semester, teachers from West’s English Language Learner program called him and his mom with an interpreter.
They told him: if you fail any of your classes, you’re not going to graduate this year. And they said they could help more if he returned to school, four days a week.
But Abdul Aziz is juggling a lot of obligations in addition to school. He works full-time at a restaurant.
“I have a big dream also, which is that I want to pay for my car; I want to pay for the WiFi; I want to pay for the electricity bill,” he says. “This is hard but what option do I have? If I quit, who is going to pay the bill?
Abdul Aziz is also hoping to pay for college. But first, he needs a high school diploma. With some coaxing from teachers, Sultan Abdul Aziz recently made a commitment: start going back to school on a regular basis.
Manchester West Principal Richard Dichard is one of the many staff hoping this new goal sticks.
“Once you get someone like Sultan back engaged and you formulate a plan for them, generally speaking, they follow it and get to where they need to get to,” he says.
The reality of low graduation rates and overwhelming community needs aren’t new to Dichard. About 60 percent of students at West are low-income, and over a third have special education plans or are designated English Language Learners.
And right now, about half of the high school has opted to stay fully remote. But in the last month, a growing number has been coming in four days a week. And Dichard says the key to keeping them here is relationships.
“We’ve learned how important relationships are at the school level, individual relationships - one, two, three adults, maybe more - that a student can to go to and feel comfortable with to get them back to a place where they are willing and able to learn,” he says.
For Abdul Aziz, many of those adults are in the English Language learning program. One of them is a student teacher Angelina Gillispie, who is interning at West while getting her Masters’ at UNH Manchester.
At a recent advisory meeting in the ELL classroom, students were listening to a rap in Arabic about the coronavirus and reading in English about leadership skills. Some were getting one-on-one help for their general classes like history and math. Others were finishing up assignments that they wouldn’t have been able to do at home because of spotty internet.
And in one corner, a large screen projected the faces of a few students who were joining from home. By the door sat boxes of food and clothing for students to take home, provided each week by the district and local non-profits.
Gillispie says these non-academic needs are part of what she and her mentors who have worked at West for years try to help with when students show up.
“I’m thinking to myself: Okay, when I am going to see the student? Next time I see them, what will I get for him or her? I need to check in with them to see if they need clothes; I need to check in with them to see how their mother is doing; I need to check in to see if their brother is still working in the factory,” she says.
The ELL teachers regularly have conversations with her older students who are taking on major family obligations, including jobs, during the pandemic.
“We’ll say something like: ‘We know that you have been working full time, and it's so difficult to work full time and do your school work. But if you want to graduate, you need to do the work,’” she says.
Abdul Aziz is supposed to graduate in June, but on that day I visited, he wasn’t there. His teachers said they’re not sure what kept him home, but they’ll keep on reaching out.