The Manchester school district has released new data that shows middle and high school students are struggling during the pandemic, especially students of color.
A review of grades and attendance records from the district’s first quarter of the school year - when most students were partially or fully remote - show that about 10 percent more students failed or missed classes this fall, compared to a year ago.
About a third of students had five or more absences, potentially putting them on a path to truancy.
More than 40 percent of secondary school students were failing at least one class. That number is even higher for students learning English as a second language, students with special education needs, and Black and Latinx high schoolers.
The numbers illustrate not only the toll of disrupted and virtual schooling during a pandemic, but also the disparities that have long plagued New Hampshire's public schools, including Manchester's.
“Yes, we know remote learning has widened the gap, but there was a systematic issue before,” said Manchester Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen, who is spearheading the district’s efforts to document and address equity issues. “We’re not blaming. We’re going to come to the ‘how?’ and “what’s going on?' and then we can fix it.”
For Yaritza Rodriguez, the fix couldn’t come fast enough. Rodriguez’ two freshmen children are both legally entitled to special education services through their Individualized Education Plans (IEP's), but she said these have been limited during remote learning.
She said one of her sons, a former honors student, is now failing multiple classes. The other has missed so many days of virtual classes that, Rodriguez said, his school alerted the state Division for Children, Youth and Families of truancy. He is now required to meet with a probation officer, and Rodriguez worries more absenteeism could land her in court for negligence.
“I’m just one person,” she said. “I am a single mother of three. I can only do so much.”
Rodriguez is paying for one of her sons to get help at an afterschool program run by the Manchester Police Athletic League, and she’s advocating for her other son to get in-person special education services again, even if most classes remain virtual.
Allen said some remedial support may have to wait until next summer, but in the meantime, the district is expanding tutoring services and “learning hubs” for students who are falling behind.
As for the failing grades, the district has directed teachers to assess student work with a competency-based model. This means figuring out gaps in student's knowledge and giving them a chance to redo tests and make up for missed assignments without punishing them for lateness.
Some parents say that new approach hasn’t been communicated properly to families. Kile Adumene, a parent and advocate for equity in the city’s schools, said the district needs to improve communication if it wants to address disparities worsened by the pandemic. And in a district where dozens of languages are spoken, effective communication requires a well-coordinated team of interpreters, social workers and community liasons.
“Lack of education and information about how the system works is a big key,” Adumene said. “I have a Masters’ degree, and I’m still struggling to know how the system works.”
For many parents watching their kids fall behind, the solution is obvious: fully reopen schools. But with soaring coronavirus cases in Manchester and across the state, all bets are off.
As the uncertainty continues, Yaritza Rodriguez said she’s not sure how to motivate her kids anymore.
“They are done with remote learning," she says. "They tell me this all the time: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m tired of this. This is not working for us.' I don’t know what else to say to them.”