It was a tough road to graduation for ETHS students, administrators, faculty, and staff. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

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This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison 365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.

As part of a collaboration made possible by the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Evanston RoundTable and Wednesday Journal newsrooms explored various aspects of how two high school districts in similar Chicago suburbs – Evanston and Oak Park – addressed the social/emotional needs of students, particularly students of color, after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their lives in March 2020. 

Each newsroom explored the various solutions deployed by administrators in those respective high school districts and the community’s responses to those solutions. 

In Looking to Re-Open Schools, Administrators Balance Physical Safety and Social-Emotional Well-Being

When Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker in March 2020 closed all public schools in the State, administrators and teaching staff in Evanston and Oak Park focused initially on academics, implementing remote learning within days of the mandated shutdown. A spring of remote learning and the following summer gave administrators time to understand that reopening school buildings necessitated balancing physical safety, academic progress, and social-emotional well-being.

Plans to reopen school buildings changed with the waves of COVID-19, and administrators enlisted teachers, staff, community members, and medical experts in the balancing process. Isolation from peers and extended family, economic hardship from the lockdown, and the relative isolation necessitated by remote learning took a toll on everyone.

With no vaccine on the horizon in the fall, school districts implemented programs to address students’ academic and social-emotional needs – ad-hoc measures until the buildings could be safely reopened.

School districts in Evanston and Oak Park became increasingly aware of the nexus between the stress from the pandemic and academic achievement. Assessments were challenged; some were changed.

Illinois public schools will all open for in-person learning next month, though some students may still qualify for remote learning. Students will be welcomed back, it is believed, by administrators, faculty and staff with a heightened tenderness.

At Evanston Township High School, A Year Imbued With COVID Trauma

ETHS is the equivalent of a small town in physical size and population. The 2020-21 academic year embraced 3,729 students, 316 faculty members and 312 administrative and support staff members.

Evanston Township High School

The school’s population, including students and faculty/support staff, is racially, ethnically and economically diverse. The student population is 45.6% white, 25.1% Black/African American, 19.5% Hispanic/Latino, 5.6% Asian, 3.8% multi-racial (two or more), and less than 1% each Native Hawaiian and Native American. Enrolled students come from 69 countries with 38 different languages spoken at home. Thirty-five percent of all students qualify as low-income, including 115 who do not have a steady address or location to call home.

At nearly every School Board meeting held between March 2020 and April 2021, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said the physical safety of staff and students was foremost in deciding when to reopen for in-person learning. He always said, “We will follow the science.” Neither the Board nor the administration discussed publicly what metrics were used and whether those changed over the course of the pandemic.

ETHS reopened on April 12, 2021, welcoming the first cohort of students on April 13 to learn under a hybrid model. The option of hybrid learning was open to all families; the decision to attend the hybrid classes was made individually by students or their families. 

Physical Safety and Social-emotional Well-Being, With Science Added In

ETHS administrators said they maintained contact with students throughout the lockdown. Supporting Dr. Witherspoon’s emphasis on the need for physical safety from a sometimes deadly virus, Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell and Associate Principal for Student Services Taya Kinzie discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the social-emotional well-being of ETHS students. They said they understood students were affected not only by the isolation of the lockdown but also by local and nationwide racial trauma.

Dr. Witherspoon, Dr. Campbell and Ms. Kinzie called the conflation “COVID-And.” They said further that families of color bore the brunt of racialized trauma.

The three administrators said they felt ETHS was well prepared to respond quickly and roll out online learning because its online educational plans had already been approved by the State.

ETHS made mental health services available to students, staff and families, and worked to de-stigmatize mental health care. The school also implemented an outreach program to provide emergency assistance to families in need.

District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon

During the pandemic, Dr. Witherspoon said he met daily with his 11-member cabinet to review updates and new information.

Death and Trauma Beyond COVID-19

The specter of death was everywhere during the past 15 months as one catastrophe after another seeped through the school’s locked doors.

Marcus Campbell, Assistant Superintendent/Principal of ETHS.

Dr. Campbell said, “I don’t know that we can really compartmentalize our question in the conversation to just be talking about COVID-19 without talking about the other losses that we experienced. The deaths of several students and recent graduates reverberated throughout the ETHS community. Several died as a result of gun violence, adding a layer of criminality on top of the tragic demise of a young person.

Current and former employees also died. Nearly all of these deaths of students, staff and family members were people of color.

Trauma outside the ETHS community also affected the students, teachers and families: the public murder of George Floyd and the shooting two months later in Kenosha, Wis., of Evanston native Jacob Blake. He was shot seven times in front of three of his children and left partly paralyzed.

Dr. Campbell said, “All of it was together for us. It was COVID-And … We made a lot of decisions about so many things related to COVID, but there were so many things that we were experiencing and it was all together, and they were layered on top of one another.”

It was ‘COVID-And’ … We made a lot of decisions about so many things related to COVID, but there were so many things that we were experiencing and it was all together, and they were layered on top of one another.”

Taya Kinzie, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services at ETHS.

Crisis Response and Racial Trauma

At a time when families were slammed with simultaneous challenges including lack of job security, lack of income, health risks in working at an in-person job, concerns about housing, food scarcity, access to childcare, worries about elderly parents and grandparents and underlying health conditions, ETHS stepped up and delivered, both literally and figuratively, administrators said.

Recognizing the impact of COVID on stress levels, the administration made mental health resources and mindfulness training available to families as well as students and teachers and worked to de-stigmatize mental health care.

Ms. Kinzie said, “Mental health nationwide has been a significant issue. One of the things we are committed to is removing barriers that may exist for families. And as a result, we secure and create access and connections in ways that unfortunately many communities are not able to. So for us, mental health and well-being is not just a white picture, it is a need for all students, and we have seen that repeatedly.”

One of the things we are committed to is removing barriers that may exist for families.”

An outreach program provided emergency assistance to families in need. These efforts that went beyond technical support and school supplies and included food, clothing, transportation, advocacy to prevent eviction and more.

Ms. Kinzie noted, “One thing we do well is we wrap around each other in crisis.”

ETHS administrators hewed to the physical threat of COVID-19 and gave examples of racial disparities in the effect and impact of the virus.

Calls to Open the School for In-Person Learning

As early as December 2020, a group of medical doctors and concerned parents, some in both roles, began to urge administrators to reopen the school for in-person learning.                                                                       

They said reopening the building as quickly and safely as possible was essential for reasons of mental health and racial equity.                          

Valerie Kimball, a pediatrician at Chicago Area Pediatrics and the mother of three current and prospective ETHS students, sent a letter to be read at the Dec. 14 District 202 School Board meeting.                                                   

Dr. Kimball said that over the past nine months, she had become “extremely concerned” about the mental health of ETHS teenagers. “Our well-teen visits … are now primarily discussions about managing school from home, difficulties in staying motivated and engaged, the need for continued social interactions, and feelings of isolation, sadness and anxiousness.                  

“Many teens indicate they have gone from ‘A’ students to just barely getting by. Some wonder if they have developed ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], as they no longer are able to focus and engage on a screen. Others indicate they have simply become apathetic.”                                                 

“The mental health crisis is exacerbated,” she wrote, “by the fact that mental health resources are overtaxed and the social workers, teachers and coaches who helped students through tough spots are no longer as accessible.”     

While she recognized the physical concerns about the virus, she wrote, “We are on the brink of losing many of our children to the downward spiral of mental illness – anxiety, depression, drug use and overdose, and suicide as a result of delayed in-person schooling – not to mention those we have lost because they have given up on education.”

“We are on the brink of losing many of our children to the downward spiral of mental illness – anxiety, depression, drug use and overdose, and suicide as a result of delayed in-person schooling – not to mention those we have lost because they have given up on education.”

Within a few weeks, a group called Reopen Schools, composed of several parents, medical professionals and other concerned residents, was putting public pressure on ETHS administrators to convene a medical advisory team to expedite bringing students back into the building.

ETHS Delays Re-Opening

ETHS administrators hewed to the physical threat of COVID-19 as a reason to keep the school closed to in-person learning and gave examples of racial disparities in the effect and impact of the virus.

Dr. Witherspoon said, “This is documented nationally even to this moment, and it is documented anecdotally here. People of color saw this threat of COVID and death very different than some white people. … So there was a perspective that was racialized. People saw the situation through their own perspective, through their own racial lens.”

Referring to some of the vocal groups that were promoting alternative points of view, Dr. Witherspoon said, “They had zero impact on what we were doing at ETHS and the decisions we were making.”

Administrators decided to wait until the staff had an opportunity to be vaccinated.

ETHS Opens for In-Person Learning

Although ETHS re-opened on April 12, it was not until the next day that students lined up to have their temperature checked and be admitted back into school.

Under this hybrid model, a teacher would teach all students – those at home and those in the classroom – at the same time. 

In-person students attended classes on campus every other week. These students had been split into four cohorts: A, B, C and D. In-person classes took place Tuesday through Friday; a break between 11:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. allowed time for travel or lunch or both.

For each course, in-person students attended one session every two weeks – about 12 in-person sessions until the end of the term. With this model, the school maintained about a 25% capacity.

Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS, told the RoundTable that this model of hybrid learning put extra work on teachers.

Peter Bavis, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction

Evaluating the Impact of the Re-Opening

ETHS administrators did not expressly rely on the reopening as a way to address student’s mental health and social-emotional well-being. They said those issues were addressed in the remote supports offered during the year.

 “If there was one take-away,” Dr. Bavis said, “it was that the challenges were complex, they were layered, and they were vastly different kid to kid, family to family.”                                                                

During the lockdown, ETHS implemented two changes intended to address the conjunction of academic stress and social-emotional well-being: eliminating final exams and establishing a predictable structure.

                        

“If there was one take-away, it was that the challenges were complex, they were layered, and they were vastly different kid to kid, family to family. … We have to be responsive to the needs of our kids when they come into the building next year.”

“We stopped administering semester exams during the pandemic. We felt that would de-stress the environment for kids.

“The other thing we did was have a very stable schedule for kids, whether it was e-learning or in-person. … We had our Wildkit Mondays, where the kids did asynchronous work and had time to decompress. Tuesday through Friday, we used a block schedule. … We also built in a break in the middle of the day for students, which is very important.” 

Dr. Bavis said, “Social- emotional learning has to be centered in everything we do. Because everybody is so different, even acclimating to social settings in the classroom, we have to be super mindful of how we re-integrate kids and adults back into this, because we honestly don’t know what they’re carrying. We don’t have insight into everybody.

 “We have to be responsive to the needs of our kids when they come into the building next year.”

And the Students Say …

Administrators maintained that educational rigor did not suffer. Information gathered anecdotally and from interviews with a small but diverse group of students, however, suggests that students had concerns about not learning as much during hybrid or remote learning as they would have during a typical year – noting that their teachers were doing a good job, given the circumstances.

Remaining Remote

Avamarie Via chose to complete her year the way it began: with remote learning.

Remote learning “wasn’t ideal, but it was a hard time for everybody, and we got through it.”

“I stayed remote when we had the opportunity to go to hybrid. I didn’t want to go partially. I just wanted to go all-in. Hybrid learning did not appeal to me because of that,” Avamarie said.

Remote learning “wasn’t ideal, but it was a hard time for everybody, and we got through it.”

Avamarie said she experienced “more stress than depression, because I felt I wasn’t learning as much as I normally would. It was like, ‘Oh, I should be in my classroom, but I’m not.’ I felt like I would be learning more during a regular year in my classroom.

“Going back to in-person learning in the fall will be kind of like a light at the end of the tunnel for me.”

Tamara Guy

“I decided that it was not for me and opted out because I think it lacked the real school feeling.”

Tamara Guy, who graduated in May, said, “Originally, I planned on being in hybrid learning because I thought it would somewhat reflect regular schooling, but as the date to go hybrid approached and teachers began explaining it, I decided that it was not for me and opted out because I think it lacked the real school feeling.”

Bijou Carmichael

Bijou Carmichael, a rising junior, said, “I stayed remote all year. … It worked for me, personally, but it wasn’t for everyone, obviously.”

Olu Logan, left, and Gilo Kwesi Logan

Olu Logan became a fourth generation ETHS graduate in 2021. His father, Gilo Kwesi Logan, said Olu chose to stay remote when the opportunity arose to select hybrid learning.

“There are pros and cons to in-person and online learning. By the time ETHS opened up, Olu didn’t even want to return,” said Dr. Logan.

Opting for Hybrid

Sofia Williams opted for hybrid learning when the opportunity became available in April 2021.

Sofia Williams

“I felt sure that that was what I wanted to do when I went to hybrid learning. I just wanted to be able to meet my teachers and possibly see some other students in my class, and have some glimpse of that normal social school scene, I guess.

 “The most significant change was just in the mindset. It sort of felt like I was going back to normal, and that going back full time was a possibility for the future – which was really nice.”

“I just wanted to be able to meet my teachers and possibly see some other students in my class, and have some glimpse of that normal social school scene, I guess.

Peter Kedzy

Rising senior Peter Kezdy said, “I went to hybrid learning. I like to see my teachers, and I want to build relationships with them. Especially junior year when they can give you letters of recommendation, it’s good to build relationships with them. I definitely had to get up earlier just to get to school, but it wasn’t too much, because you only had to go every other week.” He said he was glad he went to the hybrid model and felt the teachers “did a good job.”

“I I like to see my teachers, and I want to build relationships with them.”

Louise Bond said she felt safe in her decision to opt for hybrid learning.

Louise Bond

“This year was also my senior year and I wanted closure in the building.”

“I also really enjoyed all of my classes this year and loved all my teachers, so I wanted the experience of attending classes in-person, even if it was just a few times.

“This year was also my senior year and I wanted closure in the building.”

Mikaéla Parisien

“I chose to do hybrid learning because I wanted to have my last chance in the building as a senior,” said Mikaéla Parisien.

What Worked

In assessing the brief re-opening of ETHS, one can look at physical safety, academic progress and social-emotional outcomes.

  • After the re-opening, there was not a major outbreak of COVID-19 or quarantining at the school.
  • ETHS will continue its policy of no longer having semester exams, Dr. Bavis told the RoundTable via email. He added, “However, given the additional minutes built into each period, students can expect to take more robust unit tests, etc. … If students do not have the stress of semester exams in their classes, they may be able to better focus on the courses taught by ETHS teachers already skilled at preparing students for college and careers.”
  • The social-emotional impact of the year of COVID-19 has yet to be measured.

Heidi Randhava, Sarah Parisien, and Mary Gavin also contributed to this story.

At Oak Park River Forest High School, students put pressure on school administrators and board members to address the growing number of failing grades among Black and Brown students.

OPRF Confronts Possible Catch-22 – Stress, F’s and More Stress 

As the pandemic raised student stress levels, the percent of Black and Brown students getting F’s increased and may have added more stress, prompting an emotional debate about the right solutions to the problem 

 

By F. AMANDA TUGADE 

Staff Reporter 

For Jocelyn Menaz, her last years of high school were anything but easy. In the weeks and months after the pandemic forced schools statewide to close indefinitely in March 2020, Menaz, who was then finishing her junior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) in Oak Park, noticed her depression worsening. 

As Gov. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order pushed people into isolation, Menaz said the pandemic robbed her of the opportunity to go out and surround herself with friends, a crucial lifeline that helped mitigate her symptoms. She felt alone. She started sleeping more and losing interest in the things she normally liked, and her grades were slowly slipping. 

“I kind of gave up at one point,” said Menaz, 18. “With every class, I just gave up on doing homework. I don’t know … I feel like focusing on school made me sad. I feel like it was just really bringing me down.” 

By the time her senior year rolled around, Menaz continued to struggle. Attending school online for months and then transitioning into hybrid classes became all too much, and the further she fell behind in class, the harder it was to catch up. 

Throughout high school, Menaz said she got mostly A’s and B’s and up until the pandemic, “I never failed all my classes before.” By the time her senior year ended, however, Menaz had failed three of her five classes.

Menaz is the embodiment of what appears to be a Catch-22 that many students at OPRF experienced during the pandemic. As the social-emotional challenges of coronavirus compound, students’ grades take a hit, which may prompt even more social-emotional challenges and more bad grades. 

While there’s no hard evidence establishing a causal relationship between poor grades and social-emotional stress, there’s nonetheless evidence that demonstrates at least a correlation between pandemic stressors and academic performance. 

For instance, Advance Illinois, the education advocacy group, in December 2020 polled over 100 parents, caregivers and students across the State to learn how the pandemic affected them and their communities. 

According to the survey, parents and caregivers “described a ‘low-level depression’” in students who showed “apparent” disinterest in going to school or hanging out with friends. They also saw a shift in students’ sleeping and eating habits. 

Eighth through 12th graders who also took part in the survey said they noticed their friends and classmates were “depressed” or “stressed out” by the “isolation, limitations to activities or other pandemic-related challenges.” 

“Teachers often saw this in students who didn’t want to turn their cameras on, or they didn’t participate in virtual lessons, or they didn’t show up to virtual lessons,” said Staci Garvin, an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Concordia University in River Forest who oversees the university’s trauma and resilience program. 

A sharp, inequitable rise in F’s 

Data provided by the high school shows that 10% of OPRF students had at least one F during the first semester of the 2020-21 pandemic academic year – going from 6% and 8% during each of the first semesters of the previous two academic years. 

But when disaggregated by race, the increase is much more pronounced. The percentage of Black students receiving at least one F during the first semester of 2020-21 was 25% – up from 15% and 17% in the first semesters of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, respectively. 

The percentage of Hispanic OPRF students receiving at least one F during the first semester of 2020-21 was 14% – up from 9% in each of the first semesters of the previous two school years. 

After the pandemic closed schools, OPRF District 200 officials increased the range and robustness of social-emotional supports they offered students, and implemented measures designed to lighten the academic burden and make the grading system less punitive. 

For instance, school administrators provided online and in-person tutoring, and teachers held office hours after school at least four times a week. During the second semester, administrators dropped finals for Bridge Week so students could catch up on missing assignments and work closely with their teachers. 

It isn’t clear what impact these actions had on the number of students who were failing in the second semester of 2020-21, since the school has not yet released its report on second semester grades. A spokesperson for OPRF said that the report will be presented to the school board in August. 

Lynda Parker, OPRF’s Director of Student Services, said that “some students” utilized the additional online and in-person academic support services and some did not, but did not provide a detailed breakdown of participants. 

Ms. Parker and Janel Bishop, OPRF’s Dean of Students, said it was tough enough simply trying to track class attendance during the 2020-21 school year, as OPRF transitioned from full-time remote learning to hybrid learning. Ms. Bishop said some teachers noticed students logged into class with their cameras on before disappearing.

“You would see the box and you’d see their name, but you’d call them out and they would never respond,” Ms. Bishop added. In addition, when OPRF reopened in February for hybrid learning, some students would at times log into classes virtually instead of showing up for in-person classes, as was expected. 

High school administrators also implemented changes to their grading policy. At the start of school closures in March 2020, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) issued guidelines for school districts to follow, which included lifting some graduation requirements for the Class of 2020.

In addition to those State guidelines, OPRF administrators decided to not give any F’s as the 2019-20 school year ended. Students who were failing could receive a “no credit” mark, which would give them the chance to retake the course over the summer without affecting their grade point average. Students could also make up their third-quarter grades, Ms. Parker said. 

Lynda Parker outside of Oak Park and River Forest High School on July 7. (Photo by Alex Rogals)

“If you went out in the pandemic with a ‘C,’ you were not going to get lower than a ‘C.’ You could get higher if you were doing more to accelerate, but you weren’t going to go lower than that,” said Ms. Parker, who will serve as OPRF’s Principal and Assistant Superintendent next year. 

“There was a lot of leniency,” she continued. “When we left, nobody expected to be out for as long as we were. There had to be things put in place so that students didn’t adversely suffer.” 

Addressing the racially disparate distribution of F’s, Ms. Parker added that the district was “very intentional in targeting students for support.”

Two months before the 2020-21 school year started, ISBE officials allowed school districts in the state to return to traditional grades, but only if “students have all the necessary tools, technology and teacher supports at school and at home to complete all assignments, take assessments and complete projects in a timely manner.” 

For some students and parents, the marked increase in students, particularly Black and Brown students, with failing grades during the first semester of 2020-21 suggested that OPRF was lacking those “necessary tools” and supports to confront the burden of that apparent catch-22 — pandemic stress, which leads to faltering grades, which leads to more stress. 

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly a dozen Black and Brown OPRF students challenged the school district to show even more grading leniency, particularly as students of color grappled with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and the racial tumult related to the death of George Floyd. 

In late May, almost a week before the 2020-21 school year ended, Marlene Menaz, Jocelyn’s younger sister, and their mother, Cynthia Brito Millan, rallied outside the high school and demanded school administrators adopt grading policies that went much further than the ones the district had already implemented. 

Cynthia Brito Millan, a parent of two OPRF students and ROYAL organizer, says the school has failed its Black and Brown students, who are failing their classes, and needs to do something about it. (Photo by Paul Goyette)

Among their demands, students with the Revolutionary Oak Park Youth Action League (ROYAL), the student-activist group that organized the May rally, called for the district to reinstitute a “no-fail” policy and to suspend the A through F grading system altogether for the rest of the school year. 

The expectation to get good grades amid a pandemic, the students said, only exacerbated their already stressful lives. During the rally, some students of color, virtually all of them young women, talked about playing the roles of surrogate parents and teachers while helping their younger siblings with remote learning. Others shared stories of coping with grief after losing loved ones to COVID-19. 

Leticia Villarreal Sosa, a clinical social worker and Professor of Social Work at Dominican University in River Forest, said the infamous video of Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, was itself a source of trauma, especially for students of color who watched it and had to live through its implications — including the protests and rioting that came in the video’s wake. 

“In the George Floyd situation, the people who directly witnessed that or were directly impacted by that, it doesn’t just impact those folks. It impacts the entire African-American community,” she said. “It not only triggers the identity trauma of understanding that that happened because of the disregard for Black lives, but also this has been something that the community has been dealing with historically, and that historical trauma gets passed down generations.” 

Ms. Millan, who is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she understands why having good grades are important, but argued schools needed to exercise even more empathy and flexibility, especially amid a historic pandemic. 

Mary Anne Mohanraj, the parent of an OPRF student and a newly elected school board member, also recommended that the district go even further in making its grading policy more lenient for students. 

Ms. Mohanraj, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that her university modified its grading policy after the pandemic to ensure that D grades appeared on students’ transcript as “Credit (CR)” and F’s as “No Credit (NC).” In addition, D and F grades did not impact students’ GPA calculation. Ms. Mohanraj recommended OPRF take similar action. 

“I understand different institutions have different guidelines and rules and possibilities,” said District 200 Supt. Greg Johnson in May 2021 (he was assistant superintendent at the time). “For our school district to make that change would be incredibly significant.”

In May, Mr. Johnson said that OPRF’s grading system did not have the capability to implement the modifications that UIC implemented and that, while “anything is possible,” given how late in the school year it was, making the change would be pretty difficult from a logistical standpoint. 

After taking ROYAL’s demands into consideration, the District 200 school board voted in May to lift all local graduation requirements for the Class of 2021 and to waive all fees for students enrolled in summer school. The board, however, did not vote for Ms. Mohanraj’s recommendation to convert all F grades to “No Credit.” 

Board member Ralph Martire spoke for many administrators and other board members when he lauded the range of support services and resources that administrators and faculty members put in place after the pandemic, which he said were working for the vast majority of students at the high school. 

“No matter how well you design a system, not everyone is going to thrive in that system,” Mr. Martire said. 

School officials had reported before the board’s May decision that 29 students, or about 5% of the senior class, were not on track to graduate. The board’s decision to waive graduation requirements brought the number down to 26, according to school data. 

The halls of Oak Park and River Forest High School. (Photo by Alex Rogals)

Looking Ahead 

District administrators indicated that they’re focusing on a range of holistic measures designed to address the social-emotional challenges faced by students, particularly those of color. Many of those measures go beyond the district’s grading policy. 

For instance, when Ms. Parker and Ms. Bishop noticed that students were “disappearing” from virtual classes, they began checking attendance almost weekly and kept a closer eye on students whose attendance dropped below 90%. The Wednesday Journal had requested information to see the attendance data over the last five years, but was denied access.

From phone calls to home visits, school staff, counselors and social workers would often reach out to students and their families to try and understand the barriers they faced either at school or at home, Ms. Parker and Ms. Bishop said. 

“It was our responsibility … to be in contact with all of our kids and encouraging them to get back on board, to be in their classes, to get work from their teachers, to be a conduit between them and their teachers to find out what we had to do to make that relationship work,” Ms. Parker said. 

Evan Ms. Millan conceded that an aggressive, holistic focus on social-emotional health should supersede a more narrow focus on grading policy. 

“Having seen my daughter excel at this institution and then seeing her the complete opposite was really concerning,” Ms. Millan said. “I was more concerned about her well-being than these stupid grades, to be honest. I was more concerned about her depression and how it made her feel about life. I just wanted her to get through it.” 

Next year, the school plans to roll out another set of resources, one of which may give teens the chance to swap out study halls for one-on-one lessons with teachers. OPRF also looks to partner with a community center to help students with homework on the weekends. 

“I know from the beginning that help is available,” Ms. Parker said. “The next step is to help students be comfortable reaching out to access it. We’re trying to give a whole bunch of opportunities and options for students, so they can feel comfortable stepping out to access those opportunities.” 

This past year, OPRF hired a trauma-informed school interventionist expected to educate and train staff on “what trauma looks like” and create everyday practices to address students’ behavioral and emotional needs, Ms. Bishop said. 

The school also announced that six of its employees, including an English teacher and a school psychologist, were chosen to participate in the Trauma Responsive Education Practices Project, a 16-month training fellowship program at the University of Chicago. OPRF also recently added a part-time care coordinator, a position funded by a grant from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation with a partnership with DePaul University. 

“We are looking to wrap every arm of support around that child while in the building and also connect them with outside resources that can help them get through the trauma that they may be dealing with,” Ms. Bishop said.