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Jefferson High School graduation, class of 2019. (photo courtesy PPS)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 21 May 2020

As educators scramble to improvise a distance-learning structure for students stuck at home due to the pandemic, school leaders and community partners are concerned that many students of color will be under-served by a tech-heavy schooling format.

jefferson hs graduation medJefferson High principal Margaret Calvert poses for a photo with a Class of 2019 graduate. (photo courtesy PPS)Jefferson High School Principal Margaret Calvert has overseen major gains in freshman preparedness and graduation rates during her tenure, but is concerned that the challenges of virtual classes will undermine the school’s focus on comprehensive educational support for students.

“A foundational pillar we’ve worked hard to establish with students and in the community in general is around proactive academic relationships,” Calvert told The Skanner. “So when we’re in the same physical space, it can be short conversations. A very important part of the work that we do with the students is to acknowledge their experience, and to have that sense of navigating and negotiating that dialogue, and you can do it more quickly in person and with much more nuance than you can through technology.”

Jefferson is the only Portland high school where the majority of students are Black.

“I think for our students of color, the power of that relationship and the trust that is built in our classrooms over the course of the year really are central to them feeling connected and at home at the school,” Calvert said.

“So how do you empower students and help them feel some sense of control in a situation that is so uncertain?

"From a curricular standpoint, the question becomes, ‘How do you honor the experience that students are having, and then also give them ways to choose how they’re viewing learning at this point in time, that’s different than we often do in a classroom?’”

According to Elise Huggins, vice principal of Portland Public Schools’ Reconnection Services, students of color comprise more than half of Reconnection Services’ caseload⁠—a significant

overrepresentation of the district population. Her program supports students who do not find traditional public schools to be a fit.

“We worked with the district to say to high schools, ‘If you have 10-day dropped kids in the last couple of months, you need to reach back out to them and make sure they engage in distance learning,’” Huggins told The Skanner. “That allowed us to stay really focused on those kids that are not currently enrolled in a school anywhere. We didn’t want to get this flood of students who were simply not participating in distance learning, and try to make a distinction between not participating and truly disconnected.”

Although the district has issued Chromebooks to students, internet connectivity has proven to be a barrier. Despite the district’s efforts to provide wifi hotspots to students, there remain some dead zones throughout the city.

“Really more than anything, what surfaces from this is really an understanding that the inequities we have in our system are heightened and exacerbated in this time,” Calvert said. “Meanwhile students are navigating so many things in their own lives, whether it is housing instability, income instability, food instability, that connecting to the internet is probably not their highest priority.”

Schools as Safety Nets

dani ledezmaDani Ledezma, senior advisor on Racial Equity & Social Justice for PPS“One main way we’re trying to attend to students of color during this time is to work with culturally specific organizations,” Dani Ledezma, senior advisor on Racial Equity & Social Justice for PPS, told The Skanner. “We know that not only do they provide an excellent level of service, but they are able to bridge the connection that is so important to our students and families of color. Or they’re building those relationships, strengthening them or deepening them.”

Pre-pandemic, such providers conducted parent nights, home visits, communicated critical information and provided resources so families would feel empowered to be engaged with the school system, Ledezma said. They continue to provide such services virtually in adherence to stay-at-home directives.

“We also work with wraparound services,” Ledezma said. “They’re holistic, they have a caseload of students, and they’re working with them intentionally around academics, but they’re also working with families, oftentimes, to provide rent assistance, energy assistance.

"They’re wrapping around the student and their families, and serving social and emotional needs.”

PPS works closely with Self Enhancement Inc., a community partner that in 2018 was one of the recipients of a five-year, $28 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand wraparound services to Portland-area students.

SEI runs 16 Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) afterschool programs, and provides services at six local high schools.

SEI coordinators each check in with at least 10 students in their program each day to discuss academic goal-setting, food security, and home safety, Tamra Hickok, director of in-school services at SEI, told The Skanner.

“We check in about emotional wellness, to make sure that a student being left to their own devices is okay for them,” Hickok said.

“Many of our students suffer depression, anxiety, mental health issues.”

Coordinators have created Google classrooms to provide students with support, and have created a virtual space on Instagram live to take the place of after-school programming. In addition, SEI has been working with PPS to make sure participating high school seniors are on track to graduate, purchasing wifi hotspots where needed. In addition, SEI provides food and housing services, crisis management and assistance to domestic violence victims.

“(The pandemic) has highlighted the variety of roles schools have played as part of the social safety net,” Calvert said. “Things like access to the student health center, and certainly nutritional services, and SUN school and food. Really the power of what we do is that it’s in three-dimensions. It’s difficult to be in a two-dimension format now.”

Better Options

While students are likely to suffer from social isolation, missed and reformatted milestone events, and lack of in-person attention in the classroom, educators have seen a silver lining in the creative approaches they’ve had to take toward schooling.

“This has really shifted the sense of us all having to be in synch and doing things at the same time, which I think to some students has been helpful,” Calvert said. “One of the unintended shifts in instruction that’s happened is that you see more student choice in how assignments are being built out.

"That has allowed students a way into having their voice elevated in learning spaces.

"We have to ask, ‘What are ways we can create communities that then support students in a variety of settings, and does this allow us flexibility, because we're not driven to a rigid bell schedule?’ There are some positive possibilities.”

rukaiyah adams jeffrey mcgeeRukaiyah Adams, Chief Investment Officer, Myer Memorial Trust speaks with Jeffrey McGee, program supervisor PPS Reconnection Services“I can only speak for my caseload, which is way over 250, but I’ve had the fortunate outlook of seeing more kids engaged with this setting,” Jeffrey McGee, program supervisor at Reconnection Services, told The Skanner. “I had a student who’s been out of school for six months, and this is the setting that she needs to be successful. I also feel like what it did was it evened the playing field for some of our students who maybe didn’t care for some of the interactions of a classroom setting. It’s all leaning toward a proficiency base.”

Huggins agreed, and expressed optimism that tele-education options might remain even after students return to physical classrooms.

“Think about kids who get suspended,” she said. “In the past, they lost access to education. If they get suspended and they need to be home, maybe they can engage in a distance format and stay on track.

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