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Dallas high schoolers who went to work during COVID-19 finding ways to catch up

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It was hard for Adam Carrera to stay motivated in class as his high school years were upended by the pandemic, and he was stuck at home behind a computer.

But the senior hasn’t lost sight of earning his diploma so he can go on to pursue an architecture degree.

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So during the week, he attends credit recovery classes in the mornings, does his work in the afternoon and then heads to his job in the evening.

Carrera is among more than 6,700 students who enrolled in courses designed to help them catch up when life interrupts their traditional schooling. Such programs are particularly important to Dallas ISD this year as officials work to get high school students back on track after so many pandemic disruptions.

DISD has established teams at high schools to locate students not yet enrolled and to funnel the teens toward the program that can help them finish out the courses needed to earn a diploma.

District leaders say they know they’re up against challenges: Many teens took on jobs when classes were moved online to help families weather the financial strain of the pandemic. Others are grappling with lingering mental health issues, supporting their young siblings’ learning or facing housing instability touched off by COVID-19.

“We heard from many students who said, ‘You know, I’m so far behind. I just don’t have the desire to come back. It’s just too late,’ ” said Dallas schools chief Tiffany Huitt. “We’ve rolled out multiple ways to re-engage those students.”

Trustee Karla Garcia recently pushed administrators: What should I tell students in my community who say they need to work but also want to go to school and continue their education?

Principal Shanieka Christmas-McDonald hands out masks during the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, at H.I. Holland Elementary School in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)

The majority of students are directed to the district’s Evening Academy or the Reconnection program, which helps them target missed credits via online coursework. High school-aged students who need to move past certain middle school courses also have specific programs available to them.

District officials prioritized expanding flexibility this year for students who are significantly behind, reorganizing the day to give teens time to catch up outside of traditional school hours.

“We said, ‘OK, students, you guys want to work, but you also need to accelerate this coursework,’ ” Huitt said. “Our kids can go to work and then go to school. Or they can go to school and then leave early and go to work. That has been a huge success for us.”

At Wilmer-Hutchins High School, Erica Hamilton’s class size has grown — essentially doubling since August — as she’s worked alongside counselors to find students and catch them up.

“My strategy is just to continue to motivate,” she said. “With everything changing in their lives, some of them are still set back from trying to basically catch up and get back to the normalization of how school normally works.”

Anabell Torres, 19, said she had to move from house to house with her daughter during the pandemic, all while balancing a job. It became hard to focus on classes on top of that.

Administrators helped her find a day care program for her 2-year-old girl while she worked on recouping credits.

Now, she’s caught up and can graduate next month.

Huitt noted that about 150 students are expected to receive their diplomas in December after going through the district’s credit recovery program.

Meanwhile, the district is exploring more ways to re-engage teens.

Officials hope to hire high school students for tutoring jobs, which could solve two problems at once: DISD needs a huge army of tutors to combat learning loss among its youngest students, and some teens are weighing classes against earning a paycheck.

Administrators thought the plan “was going to be a really big hit,” but Huitt said it’s been slow to take off. The district is working on how to use its federal pandemic relief funding to pay the high schoolers $13 an hour.

And officials still need to iron out logistical issues, such as scheduling.

“We are continuing to work to understand what role our high schoolers can play,” said deputy academics chief Derek Little, “and we actually see a much bigger potential for them in the summer than we do in the school year.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.



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