We have experienced and learned a tremendous amount over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, including how resilient we are as individuals and communities. We have pulled together in ways unimaginable prior to March 2020, whether to help loved ones – or those we have never met. And yet, the pandemic has taken an enormous toll on us, including on our children, many of whom have fallen behind in school.
Last month, the bipartisan National Service Congressional Caucus sponsored a briefing for congressional staff to highlight the crucial roles AmeriCorps members have played during COVID-19 to keep schools open, support educators, and help students to stay healthy and continue learning. Participants included Robert Balfanz, PhD., a research professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and director of the Everyone Graduates Center; Candice Joubert Meyers, principal of Crestworth K-8 School in Baton Rouge, LA; and DaKota Williams, who manages a team of six City Year AmeriCorps members serving at Principal Meyers’ school.
Here’s what we learned.
Young people are resilient, but students, educators, and parents need more help to recover and thrive. Even before the pandemic, students were struggling. Over the past three years, chronic absenteeism rates have increased dramatically, and instruction loss has been significant. A study by McKinsey & Company showed that during the fall of 2020 students learned only 67 percent of the required math content and 87 percent of the reading that grade-level peers would typically have learned. This translates into a three-month loss in math learning, and one-and-a-half months in reading. These losses were especially acute in schools predominately serving students of color, where data shows that students of color lost three to five months of learning in math by fall 2020, while white students lost just one to three months.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. Recent data from CORE districts in California show the number of 8th and 9th graders in 2020-21 who were highly vulnerable nearly tripled. And 20 of 26 states which have released data on high school graduation rates reported declines for the class of 2021.
Of course, parents are worried. A December 2021 poll conducted by Hart Research Associates found that 41 percent of parents reported that one or more of their children have experienced learning loss and 51 percent reported a negative emotional impact. Seventy-five percent of parents reported concern over students falling behind academically and 69 percent reported concern that students are not getting enough individual attention.
We have strong evidence that people powered support helps meet critical student needs. Dr. Balfanz identified five student supports, emphasizing that one size does not fit all needs. These include:
- Academic tutors who address instructional loss, particularly for early elementary reading and upper grade math – content areas and grades in which tutoring has proven most effective.
- Student success coaches that provide relationship-based integrated academic, social, and emotional support on a daily basis.
- Post-secondary transition coaches that help students with the college application process, including applying and navigating the transition.
- Wrap-around site coordinators that enable schools to develop strong connections with community health, mental health, and social service providers.
- High quality mentors who provide youth developmental experiences, and buffer against adversity in and out of school, including during the summer.
Importantly, the solutions require people to deliver the support. This is where AmeriCorps shines so brightly. Across the country, 12,000 diverse schools – including those in urban and rural areas, schools with large low-income populations, traditional public schools, public charter schools, and schools with large minority and multilingual populations — are leveraging AmeriCorps programs to help support students across the cradle-to-career continuum. Approximately 65,000 AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors are providing cost-effective, high-impact services to address schools’ most pressing needs and ensure that all students are ready for college, careers, and full participation in civic life.
AmeriCorps programs from Teach For America to City Year to Reading Partners, and so many more have been in the schools, literally and virtually, since the start of the pandemic helping to diminish the impacts of COVID-driven instructional loss. These programs and their members have been flexible and adaptive, responding to the needs of students, teachers, and administrators. Their work has varied from supporting physical health and safety to providing students with the academic and social-emotional supports they need to stay engaged in their learning and connected to their school community.
Through Principal Meyers and DaKota Williams, we heard first-hand the positive impact that City Year Baton Rouge is having at Crestworth K-8 School.
The state-run Recovery School District (RSD) took over Crestworth Middle School in 2009 after years of poor academic performance and it was converted into a charter. Management changed four times over the next 11 years. In 2019, the charter was surrendered, and RSD agreed to give control of the building back to the parish school system. Crestworth was renovated after sitting empty for 17 months and reopened this year as a neighborhood K-8 school. Crestworth is the only traditional middle school in the north region of East Baton Rouge (ERB) Parish, which means neighborhood children will no longer have to be bussed across the city to attend a traditional middle school. The students at Crestworth are over 90 percent economically disadvantaged, and over 95 percent students of color.
Principal Meyers described the City Year corps and staff as a part of her school team, saying that the AmeriCorps members bring the energy and the “get things done” attitude into the school that is helping to bring her vision for Crestworth to life. The teachers and administrators are feeling the strain of COVID-19 on a daily basis, and the City Year team is helping to lift their spirits with encouraging messages and additional supports. Principal Meyers emphasized that she cannot imagine how her school would have endured this year without City Year.
In Ms. Meyers’ words, “When I think about our school year and not having City Year, I can’t fathom it. With them there, they just fill in so many gaps. The day-to-day work in a pandemic is still difficult. But we have them. They’re consistent. They’re dedicated. They’re professional. They come in with energy. They’re part of our team. They bring ideas to me. They make our school environment better.”
Principal Meyers knows other EBR schools would benefit from the additional capacity that AmeriCorps provides. As would so many other schools across the country. If there was ever a time to increase and strengthen AmeriCorps, it’s now.
Watch the full 30-minute briefing on YouTube, here.