Editor's note: This story came about through a partnership between the Cap Times, Local Voices Network and a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism class. UW students analyzed the Cap Times People’s Agenda and chose to report on efforts to address racial inequities in local schools, one of the areas that readers identified as a priority. The student journalists focused on how one school is working to support students of color during the pandemic.
Weekly check-ins have become a staple for La Follette High School’s Minority Services Coordinator John Milton. With students learning virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Milton serves as a mentor, video calling up to 40 students per week.
“Basically my job was created a while back to help students of color stay focused on high school graduation and going into college,” Milton said, “by building self-esteem and building community and motivating them.”
Like many educators in Madison, Milton’s job has shifted since the pandemic began. In addition to helping students of color remain focused on academics, Milton now works to ensure his students’ overall well-being. This comes in various ways — regular check-ins, virtual Black Student Union meetings and being available for his students whenever they need him.
“The need is so great right now that I can't even tell you the depths of our work at La Follette… especially dealing with mental health,” Milton said. “Zoom has been helpful, but it cannot replace the interpersonal interaction.”
A chief concern for the Madison Metropolitan School District during the pandemic is preventing the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers from widening. Keeping students involved with school through such personal outreach and social-emotional support is critical, educators say.
One of Milton’s mentees, sophomore Yoanna Hoskins, describes Milton as a second counselor.
“He is really passionate about all the kids he sees and he tries to make school a better place,” Yoanna said.
Yoanna is a member of the Black Student Union and the PEOPLE Program, which helps low income and first generation students prepare for college academically, financially and culturally. After graduation, Yoanna hopes to attend Yale, and has been working with Milton to look at scholarship opportunities.
Targeting the achievement gap
La Follette High School is home to 1,580 students in grades nine through 12, sixty-three percent of whom are students of color. The two largest demographics are students who identify as Hispanic/Latino and Black, at 25 percent and 21 percent of the student body, respectively.
Evidence of La Follette’s achievement gap can be found in students’ college readiness scores. Just 10% of students of color are ready for college math, compared to 29% of students overall. Scores are similar for college readiness for reading, with 10% of students of color ready and 28% of the overall student body ready.
These numbers are from 2018-2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Educators believe the pandemic has worsened the achievement gap.
“The achievement gap is very real,” Milton said. “It's really prevalent right now in regards to those who have and don’t have... WiFi.”
Madeline Hafner, executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, works with MMSD and 25 other school districts to eliminate the educational achievement gap that exists in schools.
According to Hafner, internet access, home support, the quality of teaching, and degree of engagement all have a great effect on the success of remote learning.
La Follette, and other schools in MMSD, provide free ChromeBooks for all students. Additionally, schools are providing hotspots for students without internet access.
Providing social-emotional support
La Follette’s efforts to mitigate COVID-19’s effects on the achievement gap are not all academic or technology based. La Follette is also putting a strong focus on the social-emotional aspect of student life.
One way in which they are achieving this is through their mentorship program, where students are paired with a La Follette teacher or administrator.
“This virtual mentor, it’s helping us build relationships and (students) can vent to us,” said La Follette Principal Devon LaRosa. “I think that makes us as in-person and real as we can be in this virtual world.”
LaRosa also called the program a “huge connection point” for students and mentors, who are also positively affected by the program.
“We have teachers that have a good relationship with students, but now it’s more important to build that relationship than, they might not be getting that A+,” Milton said. “How can they get that student to survive in these crazy times?”
Valeria Moreno-Lopez, a freshman at La Follette, notices the focus on social aspects of school through the difference between remote learning from March (2020) to now. Lopez said virtual face-to-face interaction through Zoom classes is more prevalent this year compared to pre-recorded classes or discussion forums, allowing for more social interaction.
“I find it better now because we have Zoom classes, so we can actually ask the teacher in person. We can hear their voice,” she said.
LaRosa said that part of the holistic approach is being creative in how to interact with students.
Teachers and administrators also have been reaching students through their “Lancer of the Month” program.
The Lancer of the Month is a student who is recognized for “taking care of business and getting their work done, or doing notable things, so then they get mailed a gift card to their house,” LaRosa said.
The reason for this program? LaRosa said they’re “trying to come up with different ways to get kids to know that we are here for them and still celebrate them in this COVID world.”
Milton hopes that this holistic approach continues even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
“During this time,” Milton said, “the things that I’ve found to be very valuable is the interpersonal, for teachers, students and parents."
Using those interpersonal skills are vital for students and adults alike, he said — to not shy away, rather, embrace tough conversations about the issues that matter, such as the achievement gap.
“We have to have more honest conversations,” Milton said. “If we all can sit down at the table, break some bread together and just have those conversations and say, ‘Here is how I feel in that situation,’ and have a better understanding, I think slowly but surely we can change things.”