NORTH LAWNDALE — A West Side school will combine in-person and virtual classes even as nearly all traditional public schools in Chicago gear up for online classes.
Many West Side families are not equipped for fully online school, and online-only classes would not suit the specific needs of the school’s learning community, said officials at North Lawndale College Prep. School starts Tuesday.
Parents will be able to choose whether to send students to the campus twice weekly if their child needs an in-person connection to stay on track.
“A lot of our students’ parents are essential workers, which wouldn’t allow them to be home during remote learning. That puts the kids at a significant disadvantage when we’re trying to do the remote learning,” said Kieran Palmer Klein, the school’s director of academics.
The limits of fully online learning were evident in the spring, when schools across Illinois were closed.
North Lawndale College Prep sent out digital devices and tried to provide internet hot spots for students since many families in Lawndale lack computers and wifi, Palmer Klein said. Still, student attendance and engagement metrics did not meet the administration’s goals.
“We got a pretty sobering reminder, a glimpse at how virtual learning was not working particularly well for our kids,” Palmer Klein said.
Following the lackluster results, North Lawndale College Prep’s administration gathered feedback on what families need for their students to be successful and safe, eventually getting input from 97 percent of families.
About half of the families felt their children needed in-school classes to achieve a quality education, while the other half wanted only virtual learning because of the pandemic, Palmer Klein said.
From that feedback, the school worked with families to design a plan to reopen with a hybrid model so students who need in-person support will get it.
Students attending in-person classes will be split into two groups, each of which will attend school twice per week on alternating days.
Class sizes are capped at 15 students, masks are mandatory and the school has increased its cleaning schedule and added hand sanitizer stations throughout the buildings. Start times, passing periods and dismissal times will be staggered to avoid crowding, and all students will have their temperatures checked before entering the building.
When the school reached out to Lorenzia Anderson, she was hesitant about the hybrid schedule because of COVID. But her son was eager to get back to school: He struggled to stay focused in his spring online classes enough that his perfect 4.0 grade point average began to slip.
“He keeps more focus in school than doing it at home … in school, you actually have hands-on and one-on-one,” Anderson said.
Many students cannot succeed academically without the social and emotional support they get from peers, teachers and mentors at the school, Anderson said. Those supports are especially important in communities struggling with trauma where the school is one of the only places in the area where young people can feel safe and supported, she said.
“Peer support is very big right now. Especially with everything going on around us, having your peers there to communicate with is very big,” Anderson said.
Anderson, like many residents in predominantly Black communities, is an essential worker. That means she can’t work from home, so she can’t check on her kids to make sure they are focused and sticking to their schedules, or to keep them from nodding off midway though a long day at a computer.
The challenge of not being home while her kids were doing online classes was tough enough she had to take time off work in the spring.
“Being an essential worker and your kid has to be online and at school, that makes a very big difference,” she said. “For me to be at work trying to make two kids across the city get up and get online at the same time, that was very, very hard.”
Wilonda Cannon, a North Lawndale College Prep mom, decided not to send her son to in-person classes because she is able to work from home, and online classes worked well for her son’s learning style.
But Cannon’s family struggled in the spring with remote learning because there weren’t enough rooms in the house for six members of her family to have a workspace at the same time.
“I had converted a coat closet into my office, where I put a little bench and brought a chair into a cramped space,” said Cannon, who also serves on the school’s board. “There’s no space for students to be students. At school, they have a desk, they have a locker.”
Cannon’s internet connection was spotty and overloaded from having six family members working and learning remotely at once.
But the family has moved to a home with more space.
Chicago Public Schools initially planned to begin the school year using a hybrid learning schedule, but in August the district opted to pursue fully online classes for the fall.
Since North Lawndale College Prep is a charter school, its administration does not have to follow CPS’ plan. The school is split between one campus at 1615 S. Christiana Ave. and the Collins campus at Douglas Park, 1313 S Sacramento Drive, and both will allow families to opt into the hybrid academic schedule.
“They know and understand the plight of Black and Brown children, particularly in North Lawndale and what they need,” Cannon said. “They knew they had to do it because some kids, they just would not make it If school was not open and was not an option.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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