As president of the senior class at Everett High, Anne Laurie Pierre is preparing a graduation speech. What’s not clear is where she’ll deliver it. An in-person ceremony is far from guaranteed at a high school that’s been fully remote since March of 2020 and in a community where, for most of that time, COVID levels have left the city suspended in red.
“I was looking forward to senior year and I knew it was going to be the year for us,” she said, in a video diary recorded for GBH News’ year-long series COVID and the Classroom. “We had a lot planned and we wanted to do this and that, and we couldn't because of COVID.”
In chronicling the school year, Pierre has provided a window into how the pandemic, especially in hard-hit communities, has often made it difficult for kids to prioritize school. The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Pierre has responsibilities that sometimes interfere with remote classes, including caring for her 8-year-old sister and 4-year-old godson. Throughout the school year she has had to log off from class early in order to catch a bus to her job at a Panera restaurant. And COVID has taken a deep toll on her family. Both of her parents contracted the disease. Her mother recovered, but her father passed away.
Pierre is an exceptional student who has maintained her grades, but the burden she's carrying during a senior year shaped by COVID is not unusual at her high school.
“She's out here smiling and she's going through all of this, you know, her and so many of the other kids,” said Cory McCarthy, vice principal at Everett High, where nearly two-thirds of kids speak a language other than English at home and more than half live in poverty.
McCarthy, who spent years coaching high school basketball before becoming a school administrator, has approached this school year much like he’s on the sidelines during a high stakes game. He’s in constant motion — firing off emails, fielding calls from students and parents, and making home visits. And with a significantly higher number of students than usual in danger of failing this year, he’s come up with what may be his most important play yet: a chance for students to use April vacation to earn a passing grade.
The week-long intensive program, dubbed Academic Recovery Academy, will allow juniors and seniors to bring their D’s and F’s up to a C during vacation week. The classes will take place online with the support of teachers and Everett High’s peer tutoring club. Of the 300 students who have signed up, McCarthy told GBH News that 200 had not been getting D’s and F’s prior to the pandemic.
Boosting their grades to a C, he pointed out, is enough to qualify them for admittance at a Massachusetts state college.
“Look at the kids who did well before the pandemic and who are struggling now,” he said, “those are the ones we need to find, because that is an interruption of their routine and their learning.”
When first quarter report cards came out last November, school administrators’ concerns grew as the number of failing grades multiplied. McCarthy has worked to counter that trend with a steady barrage of emails and phone calls. He said of all the students have his cell phone number. And it’s not uncommon for him to show up on their doorstep.
GBH News followed along as McCarthy paid a visit to Kneico Rodriguez, a sophomore who had struggled to keep up his grades and appears to have benefitted from McCarthy’s regular check-ins. The boy told him he’s been playing video games less and has deleted his social media accounts. And he offered an explanation for why he’s worked to improve his grades.
“Because I want to go to 11th grade,” said Rodriguez. “I want to graduate with my friends.”
The school doesn’t yet have all the data illustrating the COVID slide for the entire school, but McCarthy is hopeful a planned return to in-person learning this spring will reignite students’ connection to school. But it may not be as simple as opening the front doors. Some kids, he said, are worried about contracting and potentially spreading COVID. And, he added, transitions are tough.
“We want kids to come back and be really ready to be there. What should we do?” McCarthy asked Rodriguez, as they sat on the boy’s front steps.
“I don’t know,” said Rodgriguez. "A lot of kids are complaining about being back, ‘cause a lot of kids don’t want to go back every day.”
During a year when education has been disrupted so dramatically, McCarthy argued this moment of transition should also be about changing the power dynamics around education, to focus less on rules, like attendance requirements, and more on what students like Rodriguez have to say.
“I worry that kids are going to actually get isolated even more because no one is listening,” he said. “So we're going to have to ... have a lot of big ears, have some really thick skin when they come back.”
Play it smart, he said, and kids will not only find a way to get back on track, but potentially turn around what has been a losing game into a win.
“How can we take this and flip this into a legacy opportunity?” he asked. “‘I'm class of 2021, I was one of 500 kids who didn't have a senior year in school. But here's where I left my mark.”