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Pandemic High: How one of Chicago’s largest schools rebuilt itself for cyberspace

With schools closed due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, Nitsia Flores, left, a senior at Curie High School, helps her sister Amalia, age 8, with schoolwork at home in Chicago on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
| Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Allison Tingwall bangs on the door of a Chicago Lawn house, curtains drawn on all windows. Her face cloaked by a black mask, the Curie Metropolitan High School principal steps back and waits.

Most of Curie’s 2,800 students have at least emailed a teacher since the pandemic shuttered the school and shifted learning online a month earlier, but about 110 seem to have vanished. Now, Tingwall and her assistant principals have deployed to track them down.

For the school, in the predominantly Latino immigrant neighborhood of Archer Heights on Chicago’s Southwest Side, a lot rides on a bid to reel in its scattered students. Six years ago, Curie accounted for 10% of school arrests in the city. By last September, the school had become a fledgling success story, with fights and arrests dramatically down, and the on-time graduation rate up; Tingwall saw a surge of “Condor pride” among students.

But with its educators scrambling to get the hang of teaching remotely, could Curie hold on to those fragile gains?

Curie High School Principal Allison Tingwall in an empty classroom at the school in Chicago on Friday, June 5, 2020. The school year was disrupted by the COVID-19 virus pandemic.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Chicago, like school districts around the country, pushed hard to get computers to students who needed them. But Tingwall and her staff of 280 quickly realized that this spring’s steeper challenge was to sustain the vital bonds between teachers and students — relationships tested in a city hard hit by the pandemic, with the racial and income fault lines it exposed.

Especially in economically stressed communities, it is often these personal relationships that propel learning, leading students not only to log on, but to stay fully plugged in. If Curie failed to sustain these ties, some of its students — 90% of whom live in poverty — might never come back.

Tingwall worries about losing kids to the impersonal void of cyberspace. But she takes pride in knowing 1,800 of them by name, and she is undaunted. A one-time engineering major, she works at a standing desk to stay “on her toes.” To her, optimism is a job requirement.

That April day, it takes Tingwall two tries to track down a missing senior: first at her home, and then at her grandparents’ house across the Southwest Side in Chicago Lawn. Now, on that doorstep, the senior tells Tingwall she started a restaurant job and doesn’t have a computer. Tingwall hands the girl a Chromebook.

“No excuses now, right?” she says.

Mid-April: Determination

One April morning, Nina Hike is explaining the formula for magnesium hydroxide to 25 students, represented on her laptop screen by photos of themselves or avatars on Google Meet. Then in an instant, a technical glitch wipes them all away.

Across the city, the coronavirus crisis has forced seasoned educators like Hike to reinvent themselves as reluctant tech whizzes, struggling to keep their students’ attention in cyberspace.

Working from home in Chicago on Monday, June 1, 2020, Curie High School science teacher Nina Hike teaches chemistry to roughly 58 students via a live video class.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

During the first three weeks after school buildings closed in mid-March, Chicago urged teachers to slow the pace and focus on “enrichment.” Determined to cling to a pre-pandemic normalcy, Hike forged ahead, posting typed lessons and assignments five times a day, five days a week. Only a third of her students followed along, but those who did really drilled down on writing chemical formulas.

On April 13, the district officially launched remote learning, with livestreamed lessons and virtual office hours. After a quarter century of teaching, Hike, 47, had to quickly master a new vocabulary — OpenBoard, Nearpod, Edpuzzle — apps that promised to help her replicate her Curie lab online.

But in her physical lab, she could lock eyes with her students, scanning their faces for clues of how a lesson was going. She could do experiments that brought chemistry alive.

Now, all she sees are impassive avatars — and that’s of the students who log in. Where are so many of her kids — some of her best students? Where is wisecracking Adrian, with whom she lingered after class so she could nudge him toward AP chemistry next fall? Is he sick, depressed, struggling to log on from his cellphone?

At the dining room table in her West Side home, Hike scrambles to log back into Google Meet, squandering too many of the scarce minutes she has with her students. “Are you coming back?” they message her. “We can’t see you.” Hike has been shut out of her own cyber classroom.

Several miles away, Curie social studies teacher Erik Johnson records a video lecture for his freshman seminar with his parrot, Captain Crunch, perched on his shoulder and a “Star Wars” poster behind him.

Johnson, 30, calls himself “the feelings guy,” a Mr. Rogers for Curie’s “freshies.” He wants nerdy kids — all kids — to have a home in his classroom in a way he didn’t back in high school. Amid the upheaval, teachers like Johnson see a chance to try innovative ways to reach students, including the freshman class, which has participated in remote learning at the lowest rates.

“It’s really important you treat this like regular school,” he records himself saying.

Erik Johnson, a social studies teacher at Curie High School, outside the school on Monday, June 8, 2020.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

This isn’t regular school. With no daily attendance, and grades that by school district policy can only improve, there’s no captive audience, no grade book incentives. But Johnson is ready to hustle for those teenage eyeballs. He and his students are all surviving something together, and he hopes it will bring them closer.

With schools closed due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, Nitsia Flores, center, a senior at Curie High School, does schoolwork at home in Chicago on her phone while her sisters Xitlaly, age 15, left, and Amalia, age 8, use laptops and sister Neomi, age 2, sleeps on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Take Nitsia Flores, a senior in honors civics. Usually quiet in class, she now emails Johnson almost daily, trying to get the hang of how school is supposed to work.

In truth, Flores, 18, feels nothing like her online avatar, the chipper video game character Pikachu. She’s had too little sleep and not enough caffeine. Like many students on the Southwest Side, she struggles to juggle school and new responsibilities.

In her family’s living room, she tries to write an English essay and follow a video art class. With her are three younger sisters and two cousins, whom she babysits three days a week. One cousin does jumping jacks, demanding to watch “Frozen” for the 20th time. Her toddler sister cries and complains of a tummy ache. Her eighth-grade sister pleads for help logging on to her own video class. Flores recently confiscated the girl’s cellphone after, together with one of her sister’s teachers, she brainstormed ways to help the middle schooler focus.

Flores has lost the thread of the art class, and she remains stuck mid-sentence on the essay.

Suddenly, she leaps from her seat.

“QUIET!” she shouts. “I need two minutes of quiet!”

The younger girls freeze and stare in astonishment at their even-keeled sister and cousin, her face now streaked with tears. Flores drops back down in her seat, wipes the tears and gets back to work. Only three English essays to go, and she’ll be caught up.

Principal Tingwall, her teachers and other staff bank on relentless outreach to every family to rebuild their school community online. The school creates an “engagement tracker,” a spreadsheet where teachers account for their interaction with each student. Tingwall, 36, crunches the numbers each week.

The early all-out push to reach families pays off in an uptick in participation. But a few weeks into formal remote learning, Curie, like other schools across a weary city, starts to lose ground, with fewer than 40% of students participating in a majority of their classes.

Curie High School Principal Allison Tingwall is seen at the school in Chicago with one of the bags of mementos being put together for graduating seniors on Friday, June 5, 2020. The school year was disrupted by the COVID-19 virus pandemic.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune
Curie High School head of security Michael Morris cuts locks off student lockers so the lockers can be cleaned out n Friday, June 5, 2020. The schools year was cut short by the COVID-19 virus pandemic and students were not able to clean out their own lockers.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Tingwall feels like a first-year principal again, emailing her staff at all hours of the night, her to-do list swelling. The school must hand out 450 computers from its stockpile plus 450 more from the district. She has to devise a way students can safely collect belongings from thousands of lockers.

She needs to connect with parents and Local School Council members to figure out some kind of celebration for seniors, many of them first-generation high school graduates denied their ceremonies.

Claudia Muniz, the council’s president and the mom of a senior, tells Tingwall half-jokingly she’ll build a stage in the park herself if she must.

Tingwall also makes a point of calling every family affected by COVID-19 as the virus tears through Chicago’s Latino community and closes in on Curie. Before long, she has to enlist assistant principals to help.

Late April: Disillusionment

Hike, the chemistry teacher, fires off a mass email with the subject line “Your Grade Depends on Your Participation.” She warns, “I am calling parents this week if you don’t join Google Meet today at 3 p.m.!!!”

Hike is not the only Chicago teacher feeling feisty. Curie’s educators have seized “a spirit of persistence,” as counselor Linda Bhavilai puts it. In a bid to draw out students, they livestream themselves cooking French recipes and hosting morning yoga. They strip down their curriculums to help kids keep up. One teacher vows to do 10 burpees, 10 squats and 10 crunches for each submitted assignment.

In Facebook exchanges, teachers from across the city scheme about how to get students to turn on their cameras during video lessons. One educator recommends showing students how to add fake backgrounds to mask shabby surroundings.

Hike has tried it all but feels like she’s hitting an invisible wall.

Only a quarter of Hike’s students are logging in. They don’t need fancy apps and slick videos, she has decided. They need a clear grading policy to hold them accountable. Later in the spring, Chicago would deliver just that — despite pushback from the teachers union and others who don’t think students should be graded during a pandemic.

Working from home in Chicago on Monday, June 1, 2020, Curie High School science teacher Nina Hike teaches chemistry to roughly 58 students via an online conference chat session.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

For now, Hike’s stern email works: Later that week, almost three-quarters of her students show up for a Google Meet class. Even Adrian is there, holding back his wisecracks in that unfamiliar virtual setting. At the end, as other students sign off, she calls him out: “Adrian, will you start turning in your work?”

He and a couple of other students linger online and they chat, as in old times. School’s just enrichment, Adrian says. It doesn’t count. He spends too much time playing “Call of Duty,” feeling stuck and unproductive. It all feels unreal.

“It’s hard getting used to doing school online,” he says. “I’d rather be in front of a teacher.”

“Hey, this isn’t my best teaching right now,” Hike says, “but we’ve got to get through it.”

By late-April, much of the early excitement Johnson, the social studies teacher, felt about remote learning has faded. His job is less time-consuming and stressful. But his screen is full of avatars, not actual faces. There he is again, recording himself talking to his computer.

In her weekly update for staff, Tingwall tries to articulate the malaise plaguing some of her educators.

“Remote learning may be able to crack into students’ minds,” she writes, “but I think the pain of this reality is knowing that remotely reaching students’ hearts is not the same.”

Hike gives a test and insists students turn on their cameras to prevent cheating. It’s really a ploy to see faces she hasn’t glimpsed for weeks. There’s Adrian, with his easy smile and oversize headphones. She called his dad recently about those missing assignments but was foiled by her broken Spanish.

When the district announces in late April that teachers will be allowed to issue grades and high school students won’t automatically advance to the next grade, participation surges. Students who don’t complete assignments can now get incompletes and have to make up work later.

At first, Hike is relieved. She can add zeros for skipped assignments in students’ online grade books, alerting them and their parents that they need to shape up. But then she begins to agonize over who will get credit. How can she pass judgment when she has no clue what’s keeping students from doing the work?

Late May: Acceptance

Word is out that school counts now, and Johnson wakes up to 37 emails, most from students desperately asking how they can catch up in his classes. Johnson falls back into his role as the “feelings guy,” a first responder for kids’ crises.

He starts recording a podcast reviewing the week’s lessons and assignments, set to upbeat music from “Super Mario,” the classic video game. He asks kids to fill out a daily check-in form about how they are feeling, even if it’s just with emojis.

One boy sends a long email about the tangle of fears and uncertainty that tightened after the death of a family friend from COVID. Recognizing that “Super Mario” score — part of the carefree soundtrack of his childhood — lifted his spirits.

“As a gamer, you shouldn’t let yourself be defeated,” Johnson writes back.

In civics, Johnson scales back requirements to four essential assignments. He records a podcast inviting students to join him on “a little adventure of cleaning out your school inbox.”

Flores, for one, gets caught up in civics and other classes — even as she and some outspoken South and Southwest Side friends petition the district to shift to an all-pass grading approach. She is on track to graduate.

This spring in his home office, Johnson has felt marooned away from his students. But he decides he will keep a couple of things from pandemic school: The podcast. The option to turn in assignments digitally, since it allows more back-and-forth than paper homework.

In late May, Hike sets aside some of those precious video lesson minutes to stray from her planned lecture on converting grams to moles. Chicago has erupted in protests over the killing of a black Minneapolis man, George Floyd, by a white police officer. For Hike, rebuilding the school’s community calls for navigating such fraught moments with her students.

They leap at the chance to hash out complex feelings, unmuting themselves for once and typing furiously in the chat box.

“I know you came for chemistry,” she says, “but we can’t ignore what’s happening in our community.”

After weeks of soul-searching, Hike has decided: Unless kids were slacking off before the school closed and have not been in touch since, she will pass them. She doesn’t know what’s keeping them away from schoolwork, and she cannot judge them. What if one of her students runs into her next year and says, “Hey, you gave me an incomplete, and my grandma had just died?”

But she won’t tell students that. She will keep emailing and calling and threatening and cajoling. Adrian turned in some assignments, but she wants more. She’s calling the house again, armed with a written script in Spanish. She is not giving up on ushering him into AP chemistry next fall.

June: Looking ahead

In early June, Tingwall turns her gaze toward fall. Like principals across Chicago, she has to make decisions without knowing whether school will still be online or in the building or a mix of the two.

Everyone will have to catch up academically, as some departments covered a quarter of the material they’d planned for spring. Tingwall is especially worried about freshmen who scattered in March before fully embracing what she calls the “Curie Way.”

Curie High School Principal Allison Tingwall stands in an empty classroom at the school in Chicago on Friday, June 5, 2020. The school year was disrupted by the COVID-19 virus pandemic.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

She believes Curie is emerging from this trying spring more connected to its families than it had been, and she plans to keep digital avenues for outreach open. With hundreds more laptops in homes, the school has narrowed the digital divide facing students and that will help in the long run.

In Tingwall’s engagement tracker, the portion of students participating in most of their classes has jumped by more than 15 percentage points from late April, to 55%. By the district’s laxer measure — only tracking how many students turn in at least one assignment once a week — Curie, with 98% of students doing so, has handily outpaced Chicago’s average despite its high student poverty rate. The school also has winnowed the number of missing students to a couple of dozen. Still, it will be a relief when teachers and students reassemble in the school’s now-abandoned classrooms.

Tingwall remembers something she has been meaning to do: She looks up the senior whose grandparents’ house she visited. Not only has the girl logged on; she’s improved her grades. Was it the computer that Tingwall brought, or the sight of her principal on the girl’s doorstep? Tingwall will never know for sure.

This story is a partnership between the Chicago Tribune and Chalkbeat Chicago.

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