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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Struggling Boston teens find few support options, fueling record absentee rates

“If I had had someone there to be with me during the school hours, I would have been more successful,” said Jessy Feliz, who goes to John W. McCormack Middle School in Boston.
“If I had had someone there to be with me during the school hours, I would have been more successful,” said Jessy Feliz, who goes to John W. McCormack Middle School in Boston.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

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Fourteen-year-old Jessy Feliz thought remote learning would be easy. But in November the eighth-grader, who attends Boston’s John W. McCormack Middle School, grew tired of having to motivate himself while his parents worked and he helped supervise his younger siblings. Feliz skipped one class, and then another. The absences piled up.

“If I had had someone there to be with me during the school hours, I would have been more successful,” he said. “I just needed someone to tell me that I could do it.”

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After schools closed last year, many nonprofit organizations set up learning “hubs” that would allow small groups of students to join together and be overseen by an adult as they Zoomed into their classrooms.

Yet educators and families say very few were made available to high school students — a shortcoming that has helped fuel record chronic absenteeism rates among Boston’s teenagers in recent months.

Only 3 percent of the 2,000 students attending hubs organized by the city’s network of after-school providers, called After School & Beyond, are in eighth grade or high school, according to the organization’s executive director, Chris Smith.

“The assumption was that high schoolers don’t need [support]. But they do, probably even more,” said Rochelle Jones, education director at a network of after-school programs overseen by the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston. The group set up full-day in-person help with remote learning and tutoring for children ages 5 through 13 in response to parent demand.

School district data shows that a full 40 percent of high school juniors and seniors were chronically absent between September and December; that means they missed at least 10 percent of classes. That’s a substantial increase — 500 students — from the same period the previous year. For the younger grades, the increase was far less substantial: fourth-graders, for example, went from a rate of 13 to 16 percent.

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Black and Latino teens were most severely affected, with at least 30 percent considered chronically absent across all grades in the fall. That’s up from 22 percent and 25 percent, respectively, since the previous year.

There are a variety of reasons so few hubs opened to teenagers, according to Jones and other after-school organizations. Physical space has been limited overall. Until December, the district prohibited all outside groups from entering school buildings and now only allows a small number inside. And many of the after-school providers that made room for the hubs have long focused on younger kids.

“There was really no place for high school kids to go. . . . We had no space,” said Katie Everett, executive director of the Lynch Foundation, which gave about $250,000 to help create more than a dozen free pods in Boston.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester, which already had a formal relationship providing programming to the Russell Elementary School, created hubs for many of its students. The organization also sought out space at local colleges to create hubs for high school students, to no avail. “We just didn’t have the square footage,” said Mary Kinsella Scannell, senior vice president of education and programming. “We still would [create hubs for high school students] if someone was willing to help us.”

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Some funders, after-school providers, and school leaders also believed it made sense to prioritize the youngest students because otherwise their parents would have to provide child care and supervise remote learning — potentially threatening their jobs. “The majority of our families work in industries that require them leaving the home,” said Scannell. “We knew small children couldn’t stay at home safely, while teenagers can.”

Freedom House in Dorchester’s Grove Hall neighborhood was one of the few centers to open its doors to high school and community college students needing a place to log into classes. The organization, which helps Black students prepare and apply for college, said creating programs for high school students was tricky. Some funders, like a City of Boston jobs program, required students to do their jobs remotely, while private philanthropies only wanted to fund in-person options. Overall, there wasn’t enough money to meet students’ needs.

“Teens need more resources in this city,” said Tyler Seever, Freedom House’s chief operating officer.

Other cities have invested more in finding spaces for teenagers to log into their classes under adult supervision. In Chelsea, where learning has been entirely remote all school year, the district set up hubs for high school and middle school students inside school buildings. Nearly 16 percent of high school students participated and the superintendent said it helped keep its neediest students connected to school.

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Without any kind of structured support for Jessy Feliz or place to spend his school days, things grew even tougher in January for him. His mother couldn’t afford their Dorchester apartment anymore and decided to look for cheaper housing. He and his younger siblings bounced between the homes of their grandmother and father while her search continued.

Feliz, who said he was “upset and unstable,” slept through the days and stayed up all night messaging friends on his phone or playing video games. He stopped communicating with his teachers and missed more than 30 days of school, he said.

An accessible hub could have made a world of difference, he added.

Partially because of the high chronic absentee rates, the district plans to provide as many as 600 sixth- through 12th-graders a mentor to support them as schools reopen for more in-person instruction in the coming weeks. Students who failed at least one course this year, or have been held back a grade, will be given priority, said Andrea Zayas, chief academic officer for the district.

The mentors may also be available to tutor students in subjects where they need help.

“There’s lots of fear of returning in person,” said Zayas. Students need someone who can “figuratively hold [their] hand through it.”

The district is currently advertising for the paid mentors, especially adults who can speak languages such as Spanish, Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, and others common in Boston. The district will pay for the tutoring through grants from the state and the City of Boston Resiliency Fund.

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The district is also providing tutoring for younger students. At least 3,000 elementary school students who are behind in math or English started this week receiving the tutoring in small groups after school, many of them at learning hubs, according to Zayas.

Providing these extra supports will grow easier in the coming months as more students return to school buildings in Boston. Students in prekindergarten through third grade returned last week, at least part time. Fourth grade through eighth grade go back next week, and high school students are slated to return the last week of March.

For Jessy Feliz, that return happened a couple of weeks ago — somewhat earlier than expected — when he and his parents successfully lobbied the school to bring him back because he had grown so disconnected from school. Cumulatively, he had missed weeks worth of class. He was one of just a handful of students in his classroom.

On Feliz’s first day back at the McCormack Middle School, his civics teacher, Neema Avashia, spoke with him about how he could bring up his grades. “She offered me incentives to keep going,” Feliz said. Those included “a whole box of pizza” and workout equipment for his home. She also tried to reengage him in the idea of school through activities like making Black Lives Matter T-shirts together.

After weeks offline, Feliz finally started showing up regularly and resumed doing his work. “It taught me that I can’t do everything by myself,” he said. “I need support.”




Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.