After-School Programs Work to Close Pandemic-Related Achievement Gaps for Students of Color – KBIA | Team Cansler

Elementary school students get out of Anna Jones’ car and run in to avoid the rain. You walk into a nondescript yellow brick building. It’s home to the Centro Latino de Salud and it’s also where the kids are taken to and from after school almost every day for free.

The children put their backpacks around the room, blow bubbles for a while, play the piano and generally make themselves comfortable. They scream and play, their voices rising and filling the room until Jones shouts, “It’s tutoring time!”

While the pandemic has set students back across the board, it has had a disproportionate impact on students of color and widened already existing achievement gaps. After-school programs like Centro Latino’s have had to manage COVID-19 while working to support students’ academic recovery.

Jones began co-leading Centro Latino’s tutoring and mentoring program just before COVID-19 restrictions ended many face-to-face activities. She ran the program entirely online for almost two years.

“We’re a program that aims to support Latino and immigrant students and help them with their homework or anything they’re struggling with,” Jones said.

In March 2020, Centro Latino transitioned these lessons to phone calls, SMS, Facebook Messenger, and Zoom meetings. Jones said this new version of the program wasn’t just tough on the students: the tutors found it difficult to keep the kids engaged, especially after they’d already spent the entire school day in front of a screen.

As in-person school and extracurricular sessions began again, students faced challenges when they returned. Missouri students have fallen behind in math and reading — particularly Hispanic and black students. Organizations like Centro Latino have helped them catch up. During the COVID-19 shutdowns, Jones said after-school attendance at Centro Latino has plummeted, but with in-person programming now available, she’s slowly reaching her pre-COVID numbers.

“It’s just a place for students in the community to come together and get any extra help they need,” Jones said.

Anna Jones (left) smiles after her student successfully reads the word ‘soccer’ and draws a picture of it. “It’s just that by recognizing the small achievements, even if they’re just small steps, we make a kind of impact. And that’s important,” she said.

Jonah Ortiz was in kindergarten when school moved to a virtual environment. This meant that he, his brother, his two sisters, and his parents worked together to balance work, school, and family life within the confines of their home. Jonah was just starting to learn his numbers and letters and was taking speech therapy all online.

“We obviously all love each other and are together 24/7, but sometimes it was a lot. It was overwhelming. And I know it’s been hard for her to focus and keep that mentality,” said Jona’s mother, Guadalupe Ortiz. “It was very difficult for him to focus from the classroom to an iPad, and when he had questions, it was a little harder for him to express himself if he didn’t know his number or letter. So he fought.”

But Oritz said with the reintroduction of Centro Latino’s in-person program, he’s been able to get back on track. “With Centro … he has those extra after-school hours to catch up and have that one-on-one attention with them.”

Centro Latino has played another important role in the life and education of the Ortiz family. Guadalupe, originally from Chicago, said she experienced culture shock when she moved to Columbia 11 years ago.

“When we found out about Centro, we thought it would be a great opportunity for the kids to get to know their culture better… more familiarity for them. And so we were like, hey, give them something from home,” she said.

As soon as the Centro Latino reopened its doors, Guadalupe said the children asked to return in person.

Decline in school performance across the country

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) produces an analysis of student performance across states, called The Nation’s Report Card, approximately every two years. Scores are awarded based on how students perform on reading and math tests prepared by the NAEP.

The 2022 report found that there is an increasing achievement gap between white and colored students in Missouri. Before the pandemic, black fourth-grade students in Missouri scored about 28 points lower than white students on the NAEP scale from zero to 300 in math. Hispanic students scored just over nine points lower.

In 2022, black fourth-grade students in Missouri scored just over 35 points lower than white students in math, a nearly eight-point decrease in racial disparity from 2019. Hispanic students scored nearly seven points lower and scored nearly 12 points lower than white students in math.

(*A note: Columbia Public Schools does not use the NAEP, but its results follow NAEP trends.)

Many NAEP researchers and analysts equate a 10-point change to approximately one academic year’s worth of education. But the assessment board said it’s not so cut and dry. There are many variables in test results, so they are not necessarily representative of actual grade level. Regardless, the numbers are worrying.

“When I saw these numbers, I knew they showed that all of our students in our country have suffered greatly, and particularly the suffering of students of color and their families,” said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality , said: “We learned during the pandemic that when students were out of school, they suffered because they didn’t have access to adults to support them.”

Peske said school districts must prioritize supporting students by ensuring they have access to teachers who are well supported emotionally and financially. And these teachers must represent the students they teach in terms of racial and ethnic diversity.

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Charlotte Ortiz (centre) reads a book after school at Centro Latino. Centro Latino tutors focus on after school reading class on October 25, 2022. The after-school program is available to children of all ages K-12. One of the goals of the program is to increase the high school retention rate as well as increase the rate of Latinos entering higher education.

“We really think Missouri could increase support for prospective teachers in how they learn to teach reading and math to children,” she said.

Peske urged families to remember that these numbers reflect not only teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom, but the overall well-being of students during the pandemic. Well-being, she said, goes hand-in-hand with academic learning.

That’s an area that Raymond Hall and Dream Tree Academy in Columbia want to address.

“Breaking Generational Curses”

Hall founded Dream Tree Academy in 2021. The program offers educational activities, career development, and peer support. It provides transportation and is completely free. Hall said he’s particularly noticed the decline in students’ social skills due to pandemic restrictions. Many of his students went from elementary school to high school with virtual middle school as the only transition.

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Dream Tree Academy

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Dream Tree Academy students interview founder Raymond Hall (left) for an audio activity. They weren’t afraid to ask difficult questions. “I love every moment of it. I have fun in it,” Hall said. “And the kids have a good relationship with me, they make fun of me, you know, I always get grilled by the kids. We do that. I’m basically like Uncle Ray.”

Hall begins each after-school program by asking students to describe their “rose and thorn” of the day — something great that happened and something they didn’t like. As they speak, Hall prompts them to confidently project their voices.

“I’m just trying to teach these kids that their words are valuable. Let everyone hear your voice, because your voice needs to be heard,” Hall said.

Most students named academic achievement as their rose.

The idea for the program, which offers after-school programs for primarily black students, was the culmination of many events in his life. It started with his mother’s encouragement to follow his passion for music. She had warned him if he didn’t get an education, ‘You’ll either be dead or in jail,'” Hall recalled.

The final impetus to start Dream Tree came with the death of his best friend, after which Hall said he knew he had to do something to make a difference in his community.

“We’re really focused on creating young entrepreneurs and breaking generational curses,” Hall said.

Hall has found that students find their passions and goals in his program – and they work harder in school to achieve those goals. A course at Dream Tree Academy covered car maintenance: changing tires, checking the oil, etc. Hall saw that one student really had a knack for the process. After class, she told Hall she knew she wanted to open her own car business one day.

“We plant the seeds where they can just thrive into something they never thought they would have,” Hall said, recalling the student. He smiled and shook his head in surprise.

According to Hall, Dream Tree Academy currently has a waiting list and he can’t wait to open the program to more students.

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