After school programs work to close pandemic-driven achievement gaps for students of color
Elementary-aged students hop out of Anna Jones' car and race inside to avoid the rain. They head into an unassuming yellow brick building. It’s the home of Centro Latino de Salud and it's also where the kids get free transportation to and from almost every day after school.
The kids dump their backpacks around the room, and for a while they blow bubbles, play the piano and generally make themselves comfortable. They shout and play, their voices rise and fill the room until Jones shouts "it's time for tutoring!"
While the pandemic has set back students across the board, it has had a disproportionate impact on students of color, widening pre-existing achievement gaps. After school programs like Centro Latino's have had to navigate COVID-19 while working to support students' academic recovery.
Jones started co-leading Centro Latino’s after school tutoring and mentorship program right before COVID-19 restrictions closed down many in-person activities. She conducted the program completely online for almost two years.
“We are a program that strives to support Latino and immigrant students and helping them with their homework or anything they're struggling with," Jones said. "Whether it's learning English or helping with math homework, anything like that."
In March 2020, Centro Latino transitioned those lessons to phone calls, texts, Facebook Messenger and Zoom meetings. Jones said this new version of the program was not just hard on the students: tutors found it difficult to keep the kids engaged, especially after they had already spent the entire school day in front of a screen.
When in-person school and after school sessions started up again, students faced challenges as they reverted back. Missouri students have fallen behind in math and reading scores — especially Hispanic and Black students. Organizations like Centro Latino have been helping them catch up. During the COVID-19 shutdowns, Jones said Centro Latino's after school attendance steeply declined, but with in person programming now available, they are slowly regaining their pre-COVID numbers.
“It's just a place for students in the community to come together and get some extra help that they need," Jones said.
Jonah Ortiz was in kindergarten when school shifted to a virtual setting. That meant he, his brother, his two sisters and his parents were together trying to balance work, school and family life all within the confines of their home. Jonah was just starting to learn his numbers and letters, as well as taking speech therapy — all online.
"We all obviously love each other and being together 24/7, but sometimes it was a lot. It was overwhelming. And I know for them, it was hard to be able to focus and keep that mentality," Jonah's mom Guadalupe Ortiz said. “It was very hard for him to go from going into the classroom to try to focus on an iPad and if he had questions, it was a little harder for him to express himself if he didn't know his number or letter. So he did struggle.”
But Oritz said with the reintroduction of Centro Latino’s in-person program, he’s been able to get back on track. "With Centro ... he has that extra few hours after school to catch up and to have that individual attention with them.”
Centro Latino has played another important role in the Ortiz family's life and education. Guadalupe, originally from Chicago, said she faced a culture shock when she moved to Columbia eleven years ago.
"When we found out about Centro, we figured it's going to be a great opportunity for the kids to become more with their culture ... more familiarity for them. And so we figured hey, give them something from back home," she said.
As soon as Centro Latino reopened its doors, Guadalupe said the kids begged to go back in person.
Decline of academic performance across the state
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, compiles an analysis of student performance across states called "The Nation’s Report Card" approximately every two years. The assessment assigns points based on how students do on reading and math tests the NAEP produces.
The 2022 report found a widening achievement gap in Missouri between white students and students of color. Prior to the pandemic, Black fourth grade students in Missouri scored about 28 points lower than white students in math on the NAEP scale from zero to 300. Hispanic students scored just over nine points lower.
In 2022, Black fourth grade students in Missouri scored a little more than 35 points lower than white students in math, which is an almost eight point decline in race disparity from 2019. Hispanic students' scores dropped almost seven points lower, scoring almost 12 points lower than white students in math.
(*A note: Columbia Public Schools do not use the NAEP, however its scores follow NAEP trends.)
Many researchers and analysts of the NAEP equate a 10 point change to approximately one academic year's worth of education. But the assessment’s governing board said it’s not that cut and dry. There are many variables in testing scores, so they are not necessarily representative of actual grade level. Regardless, the numbers are worrying.
“When I saw those numbers, I knew that they showed that there has been great suffering on the part of all of our students in our nation, and more specifically suffering on the part of students of color and their families," Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said. "We learned that during the pandemic, that when students were not in schools, they suffered because they didn't have access to adults who support them."
Peske said school districts need to prioritize supporting students by ensuring they have access to teachers who are well supported emotionally and financially. And those teachers need to be representative of the students they teach in terms of racial and ethnic diversity.
"We really think that Missouri could ramp up the support for aspiring teachers in terms of how they learn to teach kids to read and in mathematics," she said.
Peske urged families to remember these numbers aren’t purely reflective of teacher effectiveness in the classroom, rather students’ overall wellbeing during the pandemic. Wellbeing, she said, goes hand in hand with academic learning.
That’s an area Raymond Hall and the Dream Tree Academy in Columbia are looking to address.
'Breaking generational curses'
Hall founded Dream Tree Academy in 2021. The program provides educational activities, career development and peer support. It provides transportation and is entirely free. Hall said he especially noticed the decline of social skills in the students due to pandemic restrictions. Many of his students went from elementary school to high school with virtual middle school as their only transition.
Hall starts every after school program by asking students to detail their "rose and thorn" of the day — something great that happened and something they didn't like. As they speak, Hall urges them to project their voices confidently.
"I just try to instill in these kids so that they know that their words are valuable. Let everyone hear your voice because your voice needs to be heard," Hall said.
Most students listed school successes as their rose.
The idea for the program, which offers after school programming for primarily Black students, was the culmination of many events in his life. It started with his mother's encouragement to follow his passion of music. She had warned him if he didn't get an education, 'You're gonna either be dead or in jail,'" Hall remembered.
The final push to create Dream Tree came as a result of his best friend's death, after which Hall said he knew he had to do something to make a difference in his community.
“What we really focus on is creating young entrepreneurs, breaking generational curses,” Hall said.
Hall has noticed students within his program finding their passions and goals — and they’re working harder in school to achieve those goals. One Dream Tree Academy course was on car maintenance: changing tires, checking oil, etc. Hall saw one student really had a knack for the process. After the class, she told Hall she knew she wanted to open her own car business one day.
"We're planting the seeds where they can just flourish into something that they never thought they had," Hall said as he remembered the student. He smiled and shook his head in amazement.
Hall said Dream Tree Academy currently has a waitlist, and he can’t wait to open up the program to more students.
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