Angel Hope looked at the math test and felt lost. His high school graduation was a great success. He also won scholarships to prestigious colleges. He could only guess on the University of Wisconsin test, which measures how new high school students learn in high school. It was as if the chaos of the pandemic had swept him away at once.
A third of Hope’s high school years were spent at home in online classes. These lessons, while difficult to understand and simple to forget, made it easy for him to complete his studies. He skipped school on some days to make extra time at work. He played with his sister and brother on some days. Other days he just stayed in bed.
Algebra got little of his attention, but his teachers kept giving him good grades amid a school-wide push for leniency.
” It was almost like school was an option. It wasn’t a mandatory thing,” said Hope, 18, of Milwaukee. “I feel like I didn’t really learn anything.”
Across the country, there are countless others like him. After having to deal with the chaos of a pandemic for more than half of their high school career, hundreds of thousands of graduates will be heading off to college in this fall. They endured a jarring transition to online learning, the strains from teacher shortages and profound disruptions to their home lives. And many are believed to be significantly behind academically.
Colleges could see a surge in students unprepared for the demands of college-level work, education experts say. The risk of getting dropped out can be increased by starting a step back. This can have a negative impact on everything, from the long-term earning potential of a person to the overall health and well-being of the nation’s workforce.
Allison Wagner saw the extent of this problem while reviewing applications for All-In Milwaukee. This scholarship program provides financial assistance and counseling for low-income students.
Wagner, the group’s executive director, saw startling numbers of students who were granted permission to spend half the school day working part-time jobs their senior year, often at fast food chains or groceries. And she saw more students than ever who didn’t take math or science classes their senior year, often as a result of teacher shortages.
” We have so many students going to college academically malnourished,” Wagner stated. “There is no way they are going to be academically prepared for the rigor of college.”
Her group is boosting its tutoring budget and covering tuition for students in the program who take summer classes in math or science. She is concerned that some students will have to wait more than four years before they graduate, or worse, may drop out.
” “The stakes here are very high,” she stated.
Researchers say it’s clear that remote instruction caused learning setbacks, most sharply among Black and Hispanic students. There is still hope for younger students that America’s schools will be able to accelerate instruction and reduce learning gaps. But for those who graduated in the last two years, experts fear many will struggle.
Colleges from New Jersey and California are expanding their “bridge” programs, which offer summer classes for students with lower incomes, or who have never been to college. Programs previously treated as orientation are taking on a harder academic edge, with a focus on math, science and study skills.
As it prepares for an influx in underprepared students, Wallace State Community College, Hanceville, Alabama has used state funds to fund its first summer bridge program. In an effort to reduce the need for remedial classes, students could be offered three weeks of intensive English and math lessons.
The school hoped to bring up to 140 students to campus, but just 10 signed up.
Other states have used federal pandemic relief to help colleges build summer programs. In Kentucky, which gave colleges $3. 5 million for the effort this year, officials called it a “moral imperative.”
“We need these people to be our future workforce, and we need them to be successful,” said Amanda Ellis, a vice president of Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education.
After the pandemic hit, Angel Hope worked up to 20 hours a week at his job with a local nonprofit aid group. Even though he was not able to attend the online classes, he felt that the extra time was well worth the cost. He felt lonely when his parents were away working. So he turned off social media and ate ramen noodles as dinner.
” I think that isolating oneself was part of my coping strategy,” he stated. “I was kind of like, ‘Keep it in a little bit and you’ll get through it eventually.'”
The pandemic led many high schoolers to disengage at a time when they would usually be preparing for college or careers, said Rey Saldana, president and CEO of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit group that places counselors in public schools in 26 states.
His group worked in some districts where hundreds of students simply didn’t return after classrooms reopened. According to Shakaka Perry (reengagement coordinator at Communities in Schools), many students in Charlotte, North Carolina were lured away by steady incomes, even though classes resumed.
Perry spent the last school year bringing back students to prepare them for college. But when she thinks about whether they’re ready for college, she has doubts: “It’s going to be an awakening.”
A couple months after struggling through his math placement test, Hope headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for six weeks of intense classes at a summer bridge program. Hope took a class in math that covered what he didn’t know in high school and has signed up for calculus this fall.
He also revived basic study skills that went dormant in high school. He started studying at the library. He got used to the rhythms of school, with assignments every day and tests every other week. It was a way for him to feel like he enjoyed school again.
But most importantly, it transformed his outlook. He now feels that he is there to learn and not to just get by.
“After this, I definitely feel prepared for college,” he said. “If I didn’t have this, I would be in a very bad place.”
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. All content is the responsibility of the Associated Press.
Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed.
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