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YVONNE ABRAHAM | THE GREAT DIVIDE

Students’ dreams made impossible by the pandemic

English language learner Fredy Solis rubbed his face while studying on his laptop in his Dorchester apartment.
English language learner Fredy Solis rubbed his face while studying on his laptop in his Dorchester apartment.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The Great Divide is an investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and reach out to us at thegreatdivide@globe.com with story ideas and tips.

One year in, it’s a truism. This pandemic has fallen with shameful unevenness upon us, dividing us into those for whom life became inconvenient and those for whom it became nearly impossible.

And then there are the kids to whom my colleagues Bianca Vázquez Toness and Jenna Russell introduced us in a gut-wrenching story a few days ago. Even among those born on the wrong side of the luck-ledger, the students in that one Spanish class at Boston International Newcomers Academy stand out. Immigrants all, from Honduras, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, the high schoolers face challenges so immense that their lives seem like relics of past centuries.

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We look upon earlier generations of European immigrants who endured the hardships these kids face as Ellis Island heroes, central to this country’s up-by-the-bootstraps mythology. But these kids, whose difficult lives mirror those family stories of the Irish and Italians and others from long ago, are no less worthy just because they come from a different part of the world.

Their burdens were enormous even before COVID hit. Some of them had to forgo formal schooling in their home countries as young children to help support their families. A few braved the insanely dangerous journey to America to help clear parents’ debts and keep their loved ones afloat, but soon found themselves nursing higher ambitions. Even as some of them worked difficult jobs — one 17-year-old worked in a kitchen 50 hours a week — their schooling opened up previously unimaginable possibilities.

But the pandemic put paid to those possibilities, or made them impossibly distant, as the job losses that tore through the low-wage economy felled their families, too. When Boston schools went into lockdown last spring, these kids, like millions of English language learners across the country, were hit hard. Despite the heroic efforts of their teachers, the technological and other hurdles that bedeviled many kids from disadvantaged backgrounds were all the more insurmountable for kids like Fredy Solís, Nohemy Mauricio, and Isaías Rodezno Guardado. The in-person learning that had anchored and sustained them was gone. And for those who had to take on more work to survive, school wasn’t just difficult: It was no longer possible.

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And that’s just one classroom, in one school, in one city.

In a better world, there would be plenty of bilingual staff across entire school systems to guide these students inside and outside school. There would be caseworkers to keep them on track and connect them with services, to carry the caring these kids get in school into their lives outside it, too. There would be flexible learning options for students who have to work exhausting adult hours on the side.

There hasn’t been enough of any of that, here or just about anywhere. Nationally, an estimated one in four students from marginalized backgrounds — including 1.2 million English learners — were largely absent from school last fall, according to Bellwether Education Partners, a national education nonprofit.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told me Wednesday. “I don’t want to lose any of these students.”

For all of the damage it has done, the pandemic has also presented us with an opportunity to make change here. Our failings can no longer be ignored.

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Democrats in Washington have put the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan toward fixing them, and Boston schools are expecting a good chunk — about $400 million — from it, said Cassellius. The superintendent said the funds would allow the schools to hire 90 new social workers and 80 family liaisons to keep kids better connected, provide mental health services, and help families get survival services. It will also fund summer programming, mentors, and tutors to make up for lost learning. She said the system was already building better communications that reach students and families in their first languages, and providing more flexibility for kids whose outside responsibilities make it impossible for them to learn during traditional school hours.

It’s a start. But not enough to make up the massive ground lost across the system when it comes to English learners.

And sadly, for some kids at this school, and the many more falling away from others, it’s already too late.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.