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Before the pandemic struck, 18-year-old Cassandra Cordeiro didn’t take school that seriously. She had trouble waking up in time for classes at the High School Extension Program, an alternative school in Cambridge for academically struggling students, and she often skipped.
Cordeiro was exactly the kind of student school officials and researchers around the nation worried would vanish from the rosters when COVID-19 forced schools to close classrooms and move instruction online.
Instead, she has flourished with remote learning. She routinely attends classes, earned all A’s during the first ranking period, and now is looking ahead to community college.
“Before, if my mom asked about school, I wouldn’t want to tell her,” she said. “Now I tell her everything — my grades, and everything I’m learning.”
While horror stories about remote learning abound, some students are quietly thriving in cyberspace, including many who are easily distracted in typical classrooms or suffer from social anxiety. For some, timing matters: Cordeiro attributes her academic turnaround, in part, to a desire to do well in her senior year.
But a crucial component of her newfound success is a school that adjusted and refined its approach during the pandemic to ensure students got what they needed.
Staff gave out laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots and pushed the start of classes to mid-morning so students could sleep in and log in to classes feeling more alert. They also set up weekly one-on-one meetings for every student with each of their teachers, enabling them to get extra help with their classes and obstacles in their lives.
The efforts have yielded impressive results for the extension program, which is part of Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School but operates autonomously in a different building with a few dozen students, most of whom are Black or Latino. The number of chronically absent students — missing more than 10 percent of a school year — tumbled from about 80 percent in previous years to 45 percent this year. Students landing on the honor roll soared from about 20 percent to 65 percent.
“Our students have blown past every single goal we have set for them, attendance-wise,” said principal Ryan Souliotis. “Having less than half of the kids chronically absent is amazing. We are now chasing students less for missing classes, which has allowed us to dive more deeply into academic interventions and the social and emotional well-being of our students.”
Throughout the pandemic, researchers and education advocates have been pushing schools to seize the moment — like the high school extension program did — to upend the way schooling has been delivered for centuries, and that in many cases has failed generations of students.
But with so much rancorous debate surrounding the reopening of classrooms, it remains unclear how many schools innovated during the pandemic. Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, suspects most took a less ambitious approach: “Can we stuff last year’s schooling into this year’s bottle?”
“People who wanted more reinvention underestimated the sheer difficulty of putting on school this year, given all the safety concerns and logistical things that needed to be managed,” said Mehta, who authored the book “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.” “It’s possible that as we get more comfortable with basic safety and survival, there will be more head room to think about transforming schools in a better direction.”
An alternative high school might seem like an unlikely place for an academic renaissance amid a pandemic. Nationwide, alternative high schools typically have among the worst chronic absenteeism rates.
But alternative high schools are also known to be especially student-centric, creating schedules and programs that reflect the needs of students who are often juggling full-time jobs, child rearing, or life in a new country.
The pandemic initially threatened to derail academic progress at the High School Extension Program. Teachers had been working hard to revitalize lessons with hands-on projects, and when classrooms closed many students were in the midst of creating true crime podcasts on cold cases they investigated.
“When the pandemic struck, the entire staff was nervous about how we would corral students and get them invested in remote learning,” said Souliotis, noting the technology lends itself more naturally to traditional lecturing.
Their solution: Take advantage of the ever-changing world to enliven classes, strengthen relationships with students, and tend to their social-emotional well-being. Teachers taught the science behind the virus and how it spreads. They gave history lessons on past pandemics, and in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, they increased the focus on social justice and racial equality.
But the changes that delivered the biggest punch appeared to be those that disrupted the traditional school schedule. The school first tried the one-on-one meetings with students during summer school and shifted the morning bell to 9:45 a.m. in September.
“The later start time helped a lot,” said Cordeiro. “I’ve always had trouble waking up. . . . . Before the pandemic, I was completely a different person. I had no motivation.”
Carolina Elawad, 17, said the one-on-one meetings with teachers have made a big difference, too.
“When it’s one-on-one, you can get more in-depth with your questions and get more clarification,” said Elawad, who enrolled in the extension program this fall after being out of school for two years and credits remote learning for getting her back on track.
Pairing one-on-one meetings with later start times is a powerful approach that more schools should consider, experts said, because both tactics put student well-being first.
“We know that mentoring is a key strategy,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit raising awareness about chronic absenteeism. She referenced research that indicates students are more likely to attend school when they have a strong connection to an adult.
Judith Owens, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, said research has also shown positive associations between later start times and reductions in tardiness and absences, improvements in grades and graduation rates, and better mental health for students, who are less apt to be struggling with exhaustion.
Owens said it’s disappointing that more schools didn’t try later start times this year, given it could help students battling pandemic-related anxiety and depression.
“Sleep often gets forgotten as a mediating influence on relationships between the pandemic and depression,” Owens said. “I think there will be some interesting opportunities to examine shifts in attitudes about learning, learning environments, and educational strategies during this pandemic that will eventually lead to policy debates and decisions.”
Despite their success this year, students say they keenly miss the social aspects of being inside a school.
“With remote learning, it’s easier for kids to show up because it’s just a click of a button, but it doesn’t compare to being in a classroom,” said Isaac Ferrini, 19, a senior, noting most students keep their cameras off. “I’d rather be talking with someone face-to-face and working on projects together.”
As the Cambridge school district prepares to reopen all classrooms, Souliotis said, the extension program is considering how to thoughtfully integrate the successes of remote learning into in-person schooling, although staff and students are unsure whether returning to classrooms this year would be too disruptive.
Teaching during the pandemic has been oddly rewarding, said Daniel Goldman, an English teacher, despite the additional work redesigning lessons and keeping students connected.
“More days than not, I close my laptop really proud of my students and what they have been able to accomplish and overcoming so much,” he said.