It took years to change the culture at this South L.A. high school in the nation’s second-largest school system. Then the coronavirus pandemic closed the schools, and some students went missing.
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Kevin arrived in Los Angeles from Honduras in the spring of 2019 with a third-grade education. Until this late autumn evening, he seemed to only exist on paper, unaccounted for by his academic counselor and teachers.
Counselor Antonio Roque was determined not to give up on the ninth-grader. So he knocked five times on Kevin’s door in South Los Angeles, as a stream of cars loudly whirred behind him, and was surprised when he saw his student for the first time.
“You don’t look anything like the photo I have of you,” Roque told Kevin in Spanish as he entered the 15-year-old’s bedroom-slash-living room. “Oh my god, you’re tall.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered school campuses across California and the nation, these kinds of last-resort home visits helped nudge the school’s most chronically absent students back toward completing school.
But at the Communication and Technology School in the nation’s second-largest school system, where almost all students come from poverty and roughly 1 in 10 are new to the country, many students like Kevin have gone missing.
The pandemic has brought unprecedented academic harm to students across the country, exhausted teachers and principals, and forced many parents to choose between supporting their students’ education or salvaging their economic livelihoods.
Nowhere has that impact been felt more acutely than among communities like those in South Los Angeles already on the fringes of inequity.
By the first week of October, several classes at the Communication and Technology School had more than 70% of their students failing. Many were not logging in. The dropout rate had noticeably increased from prior years, particularly among newcomer students. Technology problems — from weak wifi signals to broken iPads — plagued more than half the student body.
That evening, Roque came armed with a face mask and a plan. When the phone calls or pleas to meet him on campus don’t work, Roque visits the homes of the school’s students most at risk of dropping out, hoping to convince students like Kevin to return.
Kevin says he’s discouraged by his English-spoken classes, where he understands little and the Zoom format makes it harder than usual to follow along.
His grandmother, Dolores Aguilar, had brought Kevin onto campus earlier in the year in search of help, her patience with the boy wearing thin. She was frustrated that he spent most of his days watching TV and playing games on his phone before she took it away from him. He seemed unmotivated and distant. They’d been arguing for weeks.
None of Aguilar’s five adult children graduated from high school. She worries about her grandson when she’s working 12-hour days as a housekeeper. She sees her grandson struggling academically. She wants to help him with his schoolwork, “but I can’t,” she told the counselor.
“He says he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know, and I don’t know either.”
Back to square one
At the Communication and Technology School, the numbers had never looked this bad. Results from an internal survey of students during the pandemic showed nearly half the student body had technology problems, and many students were in danger of failing.
CATS, the acronym students and staff commonly use to refer to the school, needed an intervention.
Principal Cynthia Gonzalez had done it before.
On her first day on the job in 2014, Gonzalez walked into classrooms that smelled of marijuana. Some students showed up to campus under the influence. Staffers’ voices frantically blared from her walkie talkie throughout the school days announcing the fights that broke out.
As principal of a “pilot school,” Gonzalez had greater autonomy over the budget and hiring than other high schools in L.A. Unified. So, she moved money around to hire two psychiatric social workers, a community director, literacy coaches, a restorative justice coordinator, and extra academic counselors.
By the start of the 2019-20 school year, the school’s culture had improved considerably, according to Gonzalez. Graduation rates had steadily climbed — in 2018, 86% of students graduated with 3 in 4 grads eligible to attend a California public university — and Gonzalez and the staff had high hopes that this year’s senior class, then juniors, would perform well on California’s standardized test and improve the school’s scores.
The trajectory changed almost immediately with the coronavirus pandemic and L.A. Unified’s decision to shutter all its campuses on March 13, setting off a massive wave of school closures across the state.
Despite an immediate shift to remote learning, few CATS students stayed connected with teachers, in part because they had little incentive after the state allowed districts to hold grades flat.
A dual enrollment program with the local community colleges had recently allowed some students to enter four-year universities as juniors. Now, it’s being sustained, “just barely,” Roque said, and “the majority of students” have dropped their courses.
In an Oct. 9 Zoom meeting, Gonzalez showed the senior class their data. There was still time to turn things around, she told them. She was going to add more time for intervention during the school day. Online tutoring was available.
“We know you’re going through a lot. We know it’s a pandemic. But this is still your future,” Gonzalez told the 80 out of 110 seniors who attended, most with their cameras turned off. “The last thing I want is for you to have to carry the weight of this pandemic for the next five years.”
Two blocks from the high school, down South Central Avenue just south of Gage Avenue, freshman Julian Peña had tried repeatedly to log in to his classes.
One minute he’d see his teachers’ faces flash across the screen, and just as quickly Zoom would kick him out as the signal weakened.
It’s a Wednesday in mid-November with only three weeks left before the end of the semester and this is Antonio Roque’s fourth visit to Julian’s home. The counselor traded Julian’s iPad for a Chromebook on a recent visit, though the upgrade didn’t seem to help. During this visit, he tried to help Julian log in from his front stoop.
“Who do you have for your advisor?” the counselor asked.
“I don’t know. It’s a girl,” Julian said.
After a few minutes of troubleshooting, a face appeared on Julian’s screen.
“There she is,” Roque said. “Can she see us? Hi, Ms. Martinez, how are you? Can you hear me?”
“I know right now his connectivity is kind of messed up,” Roque said. “You’re freezing up… What are some of the things that he needs to do for his English class?”
“Everything,” Julian softly replied.
The connection stabilized just enough for the duo to briefly discuss assignments with Martinez, Julian’s English teacher, before the screen froze again.
“And this is pretty much how it goes with your other classes?”
This pattern had repeated itself to the point of frustration and discouragement, Julian’s mother, Blanca Nuñez, later told CalMatters.
But Julian’s experience is far from uncommon.
Partial results from a student survey showed about 140 out of 300 CATS students said they were logging into Zoom classes on their cell phones. Roughly 50 of them said their district-issued iPad didn’t connect to the internet. Forty said they kept getting weak signals. Two dozen said their hotspot didn’t work.
Julian’s home and school sit on a census tract with one of the state’s worst grades for internet accessibility, according to data from the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute. A summer report from the institute found a strong correlation between redlining practices that segregated many of the state’s low-income families of color from wealthier neighborhoods and the poor and unreliable internet their children of today depend on for online learning.
Because low-income communities are less likely to afford market rates for broadband services, internet providers are far less likely to invest in the infrastructure that would improve connectivity speeds, said Vinhcent Le, the institute’s technology equity legal counsel. The state has an acknowledged digital divide problem that has not improved during the pandemic.
“No one’s coming in saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to provide this low-income neighborhood better service, everyone switch over to me,’” Le said, “because there isn’t that kind of competitive pressure.”
Logging in had also been tough for Julian’s three elementary school siblings, Nuñez said. Space for online was limited in their two-bedroom home, which they also shared with an adult sister. She’s tried to help her kids with remote learning, “but there are many things I can’t help them with,” she said in Spanish.
“For us, (online learning) has been very unpleasant because even though we live across the street from the school, we don’t get a good signal here,” Nuñez said. “We live in an area where he can’t access the internet.”
School or survival?
After CATS, Isaac Portillo hopes to attend trade school. Or maybe enlist in the Marines, if they let him. But this semester, the 19-year-old from El Salvador has been miles away from his grandfather’s home in Watts, repairing furniture in Carson around the time he’s supposed to log into marine biology and the rest of his courses.
He is still learning the language, and he’d rather work full-time to help financially support the household than stay at home — struggling to understand the computer — and where he says he fears he’d be tempted to try drugs or get in trouble with friends.
Isaac first arrived in Los Angeles in spring 2017 after spending a month at a detention center in Texas. Fearing for his grandson’s life, Jose, whom Isaac calls his “papa,” had told his mother to send him here immediately. Earlier that spring as the mother and son walked home from his soccer practice, a group of gang members brandished knives on them, cutting him. Isaac had 24 hours to join their gang or be killed, his grandfather said.
By the time Roque, the counselor, was able to reach the student and his grandfather midway through the semester, Isaac’s teachers had seen little of him online. He’s thought about dropping out. If the school physically reopens, he will quit his job without hesitation, he says. In the evenings and weekends, Jose teaches Isaac the language, and his English has improved since schools closed in March. Though he has mostly given up on attending classes online.
Isaac could graduate as early as summer, Roque told him, if he hung in there and completed his remaining classes. Wary of pushing him out, the school is allowing Isaac to remain enrolled as long as he completes and turns in his required assignments. Most of the catch-up happens on Sundays; oftentimes on weeknights, he’s too exhausted from work to make a dent on his assignments.
Isaac is trying to complete the necessary coursework, but “right now, I don’t feel like I’m learning anything,” he said in Spanish. His grandson desperately needs to be back in school, Jose said.
Students like Isaac were the reason Xiomara Sanchez, his marine biology teacher, decided to pursue teaching instead of medical school. She joined CATS in March 2018 as a teaching assistant after graduating college.
Sanchez saw the chaos during her first class, a group of 40 novice English learners struggling to understand their teacher, who didn’t speak Spanish. She saw how those same students became “like another person, like another human being,” when they arrived in classrooms with teachers who could speak their language.
“It was the job I didn’t know I needed, because it changed everything for me,” said Sanchez, who herself grew up as an English learner. “I know what it’s like to grow up in South LA, to grow up in a community where you’re not really expected to do much.”
Among the most conflicting questions teachers have asked themselves this year has been how to grade students in a time of crisis. The statewide protections from the spring are no longer there. Isaac is bright, she said, and the few assignments he’s submitted have demonstrated mastery of the material. Though he’s not logging into classes, “I can’t penalize him for making his survival a priority.”
A heavy toll
When and how, exactly, students and teachers in Los Angeles are expected to return to schools in person is unclear.
Los Angeles County has remained in the state’s purple tier since California introduced its color-coded system in late July, meaning high schools can’t physically reopen. Across the state, most of the 25 largest school districts have remained in remote learning.
Over the last two weeks, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the county began to surge to record levels and Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose administration has offered little guidance to schools on how to physically reopen, warned earlier this week of more restrictions statewide. On Nov. 30, Los Angeles County issued a series of stricter pandemic guidelines that will remain in place until at least Dec. 20. But pressure among state lawmakers to reopen schools has reached a boiling point, with a bipartisan group calling on the governor to prioritize teachers in the state’s vaccine distribution plan.
The school district and the teachers’ union in Los Angeles are still bargaining over the return to in-person learning, although they agreed to allow academically struggling students to receive voluntary in-person, one-on-one tutoring. But only two CATS students signaled they were interested in, or capable of, going to campus for tutoring after the end of their remote learning day, according to Gonzalez. No teachers signed up to volunteer.
South L.A. is among the communities nationwide experiencing the highest number of coronavirus cases. Roque understands why the restrictions for reopening are in place — some of the students and families he’s tried to contact have had the coronavirus.
On days Sanchez and her students struggle with remote learning, “desperation takes over and I just feel like I need to go back to the classroom — I don’t care that there’s a pandemic,” she said. Still, she wonders whether she’d be given the resources “to ensure that my students are safe.”
“I want to help them because I feel that when I’m at home, the amount of help I can give them is limited,” Sanchez said.
As of late November, every grade level had improved grades from the last grading period in early October, but the numbers are “still really low comparatively to where they should be,” Gonzalez said.
Only five students showed up to the online tutoring sessions offered over Thanksgiving break despite repeated phone calls to students’ homes.
There have been moments this school year when Gonzalez has felt like she’s failed — when the weight of society’s inequities feel heaviest for her students and her school. She entered the teaching profession in 2002, two years after students in San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a landmark class action lawsuit against the state for failing to provide children in low-income communities with the materials essential for a public education.
This week, seven Black and Latino families from Oakland and Los Angeles sued the state for allegedly failing to ensure equal access to a public education during the pandemic.
Nearly two decades after she began teaching in L.A., little in the system seems to have changed, and Gonzalez fears erosion in the student relationships that took years to cultivate.
“That’s my biggest fear – how quickly we can get back to our footing and how much this is going to throw all of it off and set it back,” Gonzalez said.
Toward the end of one 45-minute visit, Roque bargained with Kevin, asking for him to show up to just his two Spanish-language courses. If Kevin arrived on campus, just three-quarters of a mile away, at 8:30 in the morning, he’d be out by 10:15, Roque promised.
“Do we have a deal?”
After a long pause, Kevin nodded his head.
“Perfect,” Roque said.
As the sun set on South L.A., Roque walked to his Jeep feeling hopeful that Kevin would show up the following Tuesday.
If Kevin didn’t, Roque would probably come back to visit a second time. And then a third time. And a fourth time, if necessary. Sometimes, he said, students like Kevin are used to having somebody tell them that they’re here for them and then leave, never to be seen again. If Kevin sees him coming back, then maybe, Roque thought, it will help bring him into the fold.
Persistence usually wins out. But time is limited. So is the need: Teachers have referred many more absentee students to Roque than ever before. Earlier in the day, another student, a sophomore working two jobs from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., visited his office on campus, asking if he could be disenrolled from school.
Several other students have been unreachable since the start of the school year.
“The problem is that there are so many students that you can’t get to all of them,” Roque said. “For each Kevin, there’s 15 others that I’ve never been able to get to.”
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