With school shootings, including one that tragically claimed four lives right here at home, staff and supply shortages, fluctuating COVID numbers and learning losses, how are Michigan’s kids really faring?
BY DANIELLE BRAFF | PHOTO BY LAUREN JEZIORSKI
FIRST PRINTED IN THE JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2022 ISSUE
We’re halfway through a school year
that has long been predicted to be doomed, as students essentially went unschooled from the start of the pandemic, as teachers themselves struggled and as parents burnt out trying to help teach at the kitchen table.
So, were the predictions correct? Have our children morphed into feral animals unable to sit in a classroom and who forgot how to read and write? Not quite.
Socially, they lost a year of growing up. Mentally, warning bells are ringing so loudly that the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared a state of emergency in children’s mental health and the U.S. surgeon general issued a rare public health advisory centered on kids’ mental health. Academically, students suffered, particularly hurting children of color and those from lower-income families.
Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicted five months of unfinished learning for students, with the gap even wider for students of color and economically disadvantaged.
“We had these estimates and now teachers and administrators are actually dealing with it and seeing it in their work,” says Dr. Tabitha Bentley, director of policy and research at the Education Trust-Midwest, based in Royal Oak. “… It’s concerning, I think it’s very concerning.”
Michigan’s benchmark data reveals students learned at slower rates than previous years with drastic declines. The percentage of students scoring proficient or above in math, social studies and ELA in every grade except 8th and 11th declined.
A report by EPIC at Michigan State University notes that Michigan students made less than normal progress toward learning goals. About 3,700 third graders in Michigan had scores in the state’s Read by Grade 3 that made them eligible to repeat the grade.
For Black students and those who are economically disadvantaged, already seeing inequity in the resources devoted to their education pre-pandemic and fewer tools and technical support to navigate the pandemic, the news is so much worse, with significant losses compared to white peers.
“I think our kids are trying their hardest. I think our parents and our educators are trying their hardest, but it has been a very, very tough past two years and I think the data shows that.”
“I think our kids are trying their hardest. I think our parents and our educators are trying their hardest, but it has been a very, very tough past two years and I think the data shows that,” Bentley says.
Similar results were discovered in elementary and junior high schools across the Midwest and around the country, according to a report by Curriculum Associates, a curriculum and assessment provider.
“In spite of the extraordinary efforts of educators, support staff, school leaders, parents, the broader community and students themselves, the disruption of the pandemic has inevitably resulted in unfinished learning for many of our children,” says Michael Rice, Michigan state superintendent. “Results from the state summative assessments and the local benchmark assessments show that some students were able to make relatively normal gains, while many others will be working with their teachers to accelerate their learning to catch up to where they otherwise would have been in the absence of the pandemic.”
Academics are far from the only problem
Amanda Dexter, an English school teacher at Bode Middle School in St. Joseph, lost one of her middle school students to suicide eight months into the pandemic. She says the student was popular, intelligent and beautiful — and she left no note.
“But I’ll never forget the last thing she said to me, in the morning on the day she died, over Zoom chat when I asked the class about how they were faring with hybrid learning: ‘Ya, it’s just really hard,’” Dexter says.
She had two other students hospitalized during the pandemic for suicide attempts as well, in addition to multiple panic attacks and a general lack of positive coping skills.
The kids soaked up the anxiety that their parents’ exhibited. Kids began to feel more pessimistic about their futures, whether it was from the trauma of the pandemic, the divisive political state of the country or the looming climate change crisis, they began to feel that there wasn’t a reason to work hard for their future, Dexter says.
“Students have told me that their depression increased particularly during the pandemic because they were home a lot with nothing to do,” she says. So their idle time was spent on their phones and on social media because it was their only way to connect with peers. Because of this exposure to social media, they were also reading misinformation, which left them even more depressed and less optimistic about the world.
Laurie Kopp Weingarten, a certified educational planner and the president of One-Stop College Counseling, says she’s seeing similar mental struggles with the families whom she coaches.
“Unfortunately, I’m seeing what the headlines are screaming: The mental health of students has declined during COVID,” Weingarten says.
More students are unable to complete their homework and other obligations, and a larger number of students are under the care of therapists for anxiety and depression, Weingarten says.
They’ve missed more than a year of their lives at a time when they would normally mature and grow, and they can’t get that year back.
Weingarten says she’s never had so many students struggling with schoolwork. Many of her students are high-achieving, honor students — and she’s had multiple kids tell her that they have a terrible grade in one or two classes and are considering dropping from honors to regular classes. More of her students are requesting tutors, and are complaining of being exhausted.
Even if the classes they took during the pandemic were live, the students often had trouble focusing for so many hours while staring at a computer screen.
“Children are normally resilient, but I’m finding that many just haven’t been able to successfully pivot upon returning to live classes,” Weingarten says. Some say that they had such an easy time with their schoolwork (or lack of work) over the last 1 ½ years that they now feel the workload is overwhelming and too difficult to handle.
On a somewhat happier note
Zach VanderGraaff, a K-5 music specialist in Michigan and president-elect of Michigan Kodaly Educators, says he’s seeing a wide range of emotions and reactions that vary from child to child and largely depend on the grade of the students.
“In elementary,” VanderGraaf says, “we’re seeing a lot of happy kids.”
“They’re happy to be back in school in person, despite the masks and the social distancing and the COVID rules.”
They’re happy to be back in school in person, despite the masks and the social distancing and the COVID rules, VanderGraaff says.
But the last year imparted a lot of trauma on the students, resulting in a rise in attention-seeking behaviors. More students are speaking without raising their hands, whining, refusing to do challenging activities, leaving their seats without permission, and asking for extra help.
Frustration is also seeping out in friendships.
“In the older elementary and middle-school ages, we’re seeing kids rebuild relationships with their friends, but they have a lower emotional threshold for frustration,” VanderGraaff says. He’s witnessed students get upset with each other about smaller issues more frequently than they had in previous years.
Teacher Cici Vacca says she and fellow teachers at the moment are spending the majority of their days dealing with their students’ emotional and mental struggles, which is difficult since they are not trained therapists, and are using their intuition on how to handle breakdowns in the classroom.
“Our resource staff is overwhelmed with cases, and many families are either waiting to see a therapist, or seeing a therapist is taboo in their culture,” Vacca says, explaining that the teachers are emotionally and mentally drained, too.
“In Michigan and across the country, we have our work cut out for us,” Rice says.
Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, in announcing the national health advisory, held open the door to optimism.
“According to more than 50 years of research, increases in distress symptoms are common during disasters, but most people cope well and do not go on to develop mental health disorders. Several measures of distress that increased early in the pandemic appear to have returned to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2020. … In addition, some young people thrived during the pandemic: They got more sleep, spent more quality time with family, experienced less academic stress and bullying, had more flexible schedules, and improved their coping skills.”
Families can help
Worried families don’t have to simply sit back and let their children fall behind, says Mario Lemons, the head of school at Detroit Achievement Academy.
With the rise of mental health concerns, he suggests that parents spend intentional time talking with their children as often as possible, as the children are processing and making meaning of the world around them.
Academically, parents have been tasked with helping their children with schoolwork since the start of the pandemic. Fortunately, this contributes to their emotional success as well, Lemons says. He urges parents to make academics fun rather than frustrating by incorporating it into your child’s everyday life. Lemons says to try reading signs and articles to and with children; calculating measurements while cooking; and researching the answers to everyday questions.
The Education Trust’s Bentley suggests parents ask their schools how they plan to help their child progress and how they are accelerating student learning to fill in the gaps of the learning losses so they can move at grade level. Remediation is not the solution, she says.
Be sure to ask your school if they are using evidence-based strategies to help kids get back on track, she says. Among the things proven to work are targeted and intensive tutoring as well as expanded and extended learning time, she says. Now is not the time to return to the status quo. “The status quo will not work anymore. We need to be diligent about being equitable in our approach. We need to be all the more diligent in supporting our students, our parents and our educators. Part of that support is using federal dollars to be strategic and pushing for equitable funding for schools to get students and teachers what they need,” she says.
3 Detroit Teachers Going Beyond Teaching
By Arianna Smith
Throughout southeast Michigan, teachers are working hard on the front lines ushering kids through these strange times, often with little extra credit. So, we check in with three Detroit teachers doing interesting things to help students and communities.
The Charles R. Drew Transition Center is a unique post-secondary vocational center in Detroit for moderate and severely impaired students. Not only do disabled children and adult students deserve the same caliber of learning and care from their teachers, they want opportunities to serve their communities, families and friends through goodwill and cooperation.
In collaboration with Food Rescue US, an organization dedicated to assisting the food insecure, ESE teacher Brenna Perkins and her class are collecting weekly donations from stores, shelters and everyday people for the Drew community to use.
“When we receive them, my students apply the skills they learn to catalogue, classify and display the items for the rest of the school,” Perkins says. “It’s definitely a journey to undertake, especially at this time. More people need things more than ever, and we can get as little as 10 pounds of donations or as much as 50. We have to sort and organize that by ourselves and it can get challenging. But the volume means people want to help and we can be the direct link to folks receiving assistance and food they need to live through these crazy times.”
Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural School
In addition to teaching French to kindergartners at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural School, Robin M. Wilson is a business leader and motivational speaker with more than 10 years of experience working in Inkster and surrounding communities on literacy initiatives.
She also recently took back up the mantle of teaching kids how jazz and blues music is part of their families’ histories and identities and how early musicians used their music to break down racial barriers.
Last month, her children’s book, Mama Got Rhythm, Daddy Got Rhyme, was published by Bristow Publishing. Since then, she’s been doing virtual school visits and author seminars to spread the word about both the book and its core message — jazz music is alive and critically important to the soul of the diaspora.
“If I can offer a young reader a window into the world of jazz music and they can find something of value, that is a great reward,” she says.
Greenfield Union, Robotics and STEM
Greenfield Union’s curriculum centers around a tech-savvy and culturally aware approach to academics. It is fully stocked with all the technology and learning amenities teachers and kids could ever want, all to assist them in becoming STEM superstars.
But learning how to code and build the next big thing in robotics or green recycling is a bit difficult when a pandemic cuts off the majority of your access to technology. Thankfully, fourth and fifth grade teacher Mark McClain realized some of his students either had subpar, non-functional devices and Wi-Fi at home that hindered their learning or didn’t have a way to connect and learn outside of school at all.
“Every student at Greenfield Union has a school-issued laptop. But things happen, computers break and some people don’t have strong Wi-Fi to begin with. So, what I started doing was, if parents and kids were comfortable with it, I started offering to go to houses or meet up with kids and their family members and fix broken computers and phones, if it was within my ability. Mostly, I collected used cellphones and enabled internet and apps on them so students could stay connected even if their family doesn’t have a laptop or what have you,” McClain says.
McClain says that for every student to make it through these turbulent periods as unscathed as possible, every teacher and educator needs to go above and beyond their job description.
“DPSCD has just given me an opportunity to be here, to be involved and to, I guess, put out that commitment. You know, I’m saying put forth the commitment that I have inside of me to give to the children,” he says.