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‘I really haven’t learned anything’: COVID freshmen face college

Angel Hope watched the math test and felt lost. He had just graduated near the top of his high school class, winning scholarships from prestigious colleges. But on this test — a University of Wisconsin exam that measures what new students learned in high school — all he could do was guess.

It was as if the disruption of the pandemic suddenly caught up with him.

Nearly a third of Hope’s high school career has been spent at home, in hard-to-follow and easy-to-miss virtual classes. Some days he skipped school to work overtime. Some days he played games with his brother and sister. Other days he just stayed in bed.

Algebra caught little of his attention, but his teachers continued to give him good grades amid a school-wide clemency campaign.

“It was as if school was optional. It wasn’t a mandatory thing,” said Hope, 18, of Milwaukee. “I feel like I haven’t learned anything.”

Across the country, there are countless others like him. Hundreds of thousands of recent graduates are heading to college this fall after spending more than half of their high school career coping with the upheavals of a pandemic. They have endured a shocking transition to online learning, strains from teacher shortages and profound disruptions to their home lives. And many are believed to be significantly behind academically.

Colleges could see an increase in the number of students unprepared for the demands of college work, education experts say. Starting a step backwards can increase the risk of stalling. And it can harm everything from a person’s long-term income to the health of the country’s workforce.

The extent of the problem became apparent to Allison Wagner as she reviewed applications for All-In Milwaukee, a scholarship program that provides financial aid and college counseling to low-income students, including Hope.

Wagner, the group’s executive director, saw a surprising number of students allowed to spend half the school day working part-time during their final year, often in fast-food chains or grocery stores. And she saw more students than ever who hadn’t taken math or science classes in their senior year, often due to a shortage of teachers.

“We have so many students going to college who are academically malnourished,” Wagner said. “There’s no way they’re academically prepared for the rigors of college.”

His group is increasing its tutoring budget and covering tuition for students in the program taking summer courses in math or science. Still, she fears the setbacks will force some students to take more than four years to graduate or, worse, drop out.

“The stakes are extremely high,” she said.

The researchers say it’s clear that distance education has caused learning setbacks, most strongly among black and Latino students. For younger students, there is still hope that American schools can accelerate the pace of teaching and close the learning gaps. But for those who graduated within the past two years, experts fear many will struggle.

In anticipation of greater need, colleges from New Jersey to California have expanded “gateway” programs that offer summer classes, often for low-income students or those who are the first in their families to attend college. university. Programs previously treated as a focus take on a harder academic edge, emphasizing math, science, and study skills.

In Hanceville, Alabama, Wallace State Community College dipped into state money this year to create its first summer bridging program as it prepares for an influx of ill-prepared students. Students could take three weeks of crash courses in math and English to avoid remedial classes.

The school hoped to bring up to 140 students to campus, but only 10 signed up.

Other states have used federal pandemic assistance to help colleges create summer programs. In Kentucky, which gave colleges $3.5 million for the effort this year, officials called it a “moral imperative.”

“We need these people to be our future workforce, and we need them to be successful,” said Amanda Ellis, vice president of the Kentucky Council on Post-Secondary Education.

After the pandemic, Angel Hope worked up to 20 hours a week at her job with a local nonprofit aid group. He felt the time away from school was worth the money, especially when no one was paying attention in online classes. With his parents at work, he often felt lonely, avoiding social media for days and eating ramen noodles for dinner.

“I think isolating myself was kind of my coping mechanism,” he said. “I was kind of like, ‘Keep it on for a bit and you’ll get through it eventually.’ ”

The pandemic has led many high school students to disengage at a time when they were typically preparing for college or a career, said Rey Saldaña, president and CEO of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit group that places counselors in public schools in 26 states.

His group worked in some districts where hundreds of students simply did not return after classrooms reopened. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the lure of regular paychecks kept many students away from school even after in-person classes resumed, said Shakaka Perry, reengagement coordinator for communities at schools.

Perry and his colleagues have spent the past school year getting students back to school and getting them ready for graduation. But when she wonders if they’re ready for college, she has doubts: “It’s going to be a wake-up call.”

A few months after taking his math placement test, Hope went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for six weeks of intense classes in a summer bridging program. He took a math class that covered ground he missed in high school, and he signed up to take calculus classes in the fall.

It also revived basic study skills that were dormant in high school. He started studying in the library. He got used to the rhythms of school, with homework every day and tests every two weeks. He rediscovered what it is to love school.

More importantly, he says it changed his mindset: now he feels like he’s there to learn, not just to get by.

“After that, I feel really ready for college,” he said. “If I didn’t have that, I would be in a very bad place.”

Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed.

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