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In L.A., drop in Latino students' grades reflects fallout from pandemic

A new analysis reveals the academic gap in the nation's second-largest public school system has widened a year after the pandemic.
Students complete their Covid testing on Aug. 13, 2021, at Mendez High School in preparation for returning to campus for the first day of in-class instruction in the Los Angeles Unified School District since the pandemic began.
Students complete their Covid testing on Aug. 13, 2021, at Mendez High School in preparation for returning to campus for the first day of in-class instruction in the Los Angeles Unified School District since the pandemic began. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

With the resumption of in-person classes in the nation’s second-largest public school district, Los Angeles school officials are juggling Covid protocols and how to stem the academic fallout brought about by the pandemic. 

A recent Los Angeles Times analysis found that the percentage of A’s, B's, and C's earned by Latino students in the second semester of 2021 dropped by more than 10 points — from 79 percent to 68 percent — compared with the fall of 2019, before the pandemic. For English-language learners, the drop was steeper, more than 12 points.

Latino students make up almost three-quarters (73.8 percent) of all students in the district.

Zurisday Arreola, 17, and her sister Manoli, 18, took on 35-hour work weeks at McDonald’s to contribute to the family income after their father, a carpenter, lost work hours amid the Covid-19 pandemic last winter. Zurisday said she struggled to adapt to distance and online learning.

“I would go directly to work and I would come home exhausted. But I would still obviously need to do my assignments,” said Zurisday, now a senior at Mendez High School. With an unstable internet connection, she would arrive home late from work and rush to meet midnight deadlines.

“I never had a missing assignment, but I would turn them in late because of my circumstances,” said Zurisday, who wants to study political science.  She managed to earn the A's and B's she usually received but passed a couple of classes with C's.

The teen credits InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, for gifting her a laptop so that she could complete her schoolwork when the district had limited laptops available.

The L.A. Times analysis found that the gap in grades broadened by at least 21% between Black and Latino students when they were compared with their white and Asian peers. 

Access to a reliable internet connection and a computer has long persisted for communities of color, even before the pandemic. A UCLA study found that Black and Latino households were 1.3 to 1.4 times more likely to face limited access to technology, influenced in part by household income and educational attainment.

The school district's record $20 billion budget includes an allocation of more than $200 million toward Primary Promise, an elementary literacy and mathematics intervention and support program. But the program faces hundreds of teaching vacancies, especially in schools with the highest need.

“For me, that is one of the biggest challenges,” school board member Tanya Franklin Ortiz told NBC News. “Those schools had 2.5 times the vacancies of our lowest-need schools. … In the most challenging schools we have more teacher turnover, we have less people wanting to come teach there."

The pressure to fill vacancies is taking place as reading and math assessments show that Black and Latino elementary students are struggling to meet key benchmarks, as the Times analysis showed. 

A recent hiring freeze outside the classroom was issued by the interim superintendent to allow the human resources team to focus solely on hiring classroom teachers, Ortiz said. 

"There's a lot of academic need to catch up, where students didn't have the same amount of time and experience they would have had with in-person learning for the last 18 months," she said.

The schools with the greatest need are determined by a Student Equity Needs Index, or SENI, developed by an alliance of several organizations, which guides school districts on how to distribute funds to address the achievement gap. 

As part of the district’s budget, $700 million was granted for increased SENI funding to bring more resources to students during the 2021-22 academic year. 

“We owe it to the families, to the children impacted by Covid, and that includes our Latinx students, our English learners, our African American students," said Maria Brenes, the executive director of InnerCity Struggle.

Brenes, who has been working with Latino parents and students for almost two decades, said the historic funding opportunity would allow "true equity" for the school district.  

Zurisday, the student who juggled a 35-hour work week along with her schoolwork, is focusing on her final year of high school, and on her college applications, aspiring to attend Stanford, Occidental College or Biola University to pursue a degree in politics.

"I want to be a policymaker," she said. "I want to be an elected official in order to make the changes in a community that should be improved."

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