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His math class is on a cellphone, and the writing is on the wall

  • Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-05-05 13:47:11 BdST

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Jordyn Coleman attends math class on his mother's cell phone from his home in Clarksdale, Miss, on Feb 4, 2021. Her cell phone is the only internet-connected device Jordyn has access to. The New York Times

By the time Precious Coleman returned home from her overnight shift at a casino, it was past 9 in the morning. It had been another night of dealing with belligerent patrons who refused to wear their face masks and drunks who needed to be escorted to the curb. Her eyes stung.

More than anything, she wanted to fall into bed. But her 11-year-old son, Jordyn, was waiting for her.

Or, more specifically, for her cellphone: Because their Mississippi apartment has no internet, Jordyn uses her phone to log into his virtual classroom two days a week.

By the time Jordyn signed in, he had already missed two periods of class. And he would miss more. By the sixth period, he had fallen asleep, cheek smushed into his palm. His mother, who tries as hard as she can to stay awake so that she can supervise him, was also sound asleep in the next room.

And so neither of them heard Jordyn’s math teacher announce an upcoming test, one that was particularly critical for Jordyn, who was failing the class. “If you don’t make at least a C,” the teacher said, in a tone both playful and serious, “we’re going to fight.”

Jordyn is at risk of becoming one of the lost students of the coronavirus pandemic in the most disrupted American school year since World War II. By one estimate, 3 million students nationwide, roughly the school-age population of Florida, stopped going to classes, virtual or in person, after the pandemic began.

A disproportionate number of those disengaged students are lower-income Black, Latino and Native American children who have struggled to keep up in classrooms that are partly or fully remote, for reasons ranging from poor internet service to needing to support their families by working or caring for siblings. Many are homeless or English language learners. Others have parents who work outside the home, struggling in the absence of adult supervision.

“We do have students who have kind of disappeared,” said Barbara Cage, the principal of Oakhurst Intermediate Academy, the school Jordyn attends in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The district says the number of students with five or more absences since the fall has increased 20% over the previous year. “We’re not able to reach them.”

Studies of how much learning American students have lost in the past year are underway, but the preliminary reports are mostly grim. Even one of the more optimistic surveys found significant losses in math, with a doubling of the proportion of students described as “sliders,” because they had moved down in their rankings compared with a typical year.

Another national study, from the assessment company Curriculum Associates, found a decline of up to 16% in the number of elementary school students performing at grade level in math, and up to 10% in the number of students performing at grade level in reading.

Jordyn is in many ways better off than some of the truly lost students of the pandemic. The school knows where he lives and he is attending at least some of his classes.

But by his school’s accounting, he is in trouble, having missed three weeks of instruction since September, either because he did not log in or missed most of the day. His school has visited the family’s apartment and sent his mother text messages warning that Jordyn was in danger of repeating fifth grade. But his attendance has continued to suffer, and so have his grades.

Remote learning — which these days Jordyn does for half the week — is clearly part of his struggle. His mother says she cannot afford Wi-Fi on her $12-an-hour salary as a security guard — a situation shared by many families in Mississippi, where about half of students do not have reliable broadband at home, the highest percentage of any state, according to a study by Common Sense Media.

But Jordyn’s story, which The New York Times documented over the course of a week in Clarksdale, is about much more than inadequate technology. It is also about the added disruption the pandemic has brought to one working-class family that was already struggling to make ends meet. And it underscores the limits of hybrid learning to reach those disengaged students.

“I used to like school,” he said softly. “Now I don’t even like it anymore because it’s too hard.”

THE BEST SCORE

Until the pandemic, Jordyn and his mother lived in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he was known among his teachers as a bright but easily distracted student, one who was capable of soaring when he was engaged.

Shermell Hooper, his second-grade teacher, recalled having to stand over his desk before he would write his name at the top of the page. If she assigned a reading passage, she had to sit next to him to get him to read.

On the day of a nationwide standardised test, she said, Jordyn sat in front of his computer, humming to himself and spinning around in his chair. She thought he was goofing off — until the results came in.

When his mother came to pick him up, a school administrator was waiting for her, and she worried Jordyn had gotten into trouble. “That’s when they told me that he had gotten not just the best score in his class but the best score in the entire grade,” she said.

At a schoolwide assembly, Jordyn’s name was called, his classmates cheered and he received a new bike.

His mother invited some 20 family members for a celebratory lunch at Applebee’s, where she worked as a server. His grandmother framed the certificate and placed it on the wall.

“That’s when I liked school,” Jordyn recalled.

Kelsey Oliver, Jordyn’s fourth-grade teacher at Verona Elementary School in Battle Creek, remembered how the 10-year-old whose mind seemed to wander in class would later stop her in the hallway and ask a penetrating question.

“He’s like, ‘Can you tell me more about …?’ ” she said. “So, you know he’s kind of been sitting with it and ruminating with it all day.”

But as the arrival of COVID-19 ended indoor dining, his mother’s paycheck dwindled to $200 every two weeks, according to Coleman. When she could not afford to fix a car axle, she reached a breaking point. She, Jordyn and another son, 16-year-old Jayciyon, had been living in her mother’s apartment, sleeping on the floor. Tempers often flared, she said.

After a cousin in Clarksdale offered to let her and the boys move in, she sold her car to a scrapyard and used the money to buy three train tickets to Mississippi.

It was a familiar place for Coleman, 34, who spent much of her childhood shuttling between family members. Her mother disappeared when she was a toddler. An aunt cared for her in Clarksdale when she was 7. Then they moved to live in a suburb of Chicago when she was 12.

“This is where I was as a kid,” Coleman said of Clarksdale. “It’s more homey. Peaceful. Quiet.”

NO FRIDGE, NO CAR

Clarksdale is a town of about 15,000 people situated in the flat and expansive flood plain known as the Delta. The birthplace of the blues is also one of the poorest corners of America.

After a month of hunting for work, Coleman found the security guard job at a casino in Tunica, about 40 miles away, choosing the night shift so she could supervise her sons for at least part of their school day. By fall, she had saved enough to sign a $400-a-month lease for a two-bedroom apartment with no stove and no refrigerator.

For dinner, Coleman fries chicken wings on a hot plate or prepares macaroni and cheese in an electric pot. She and Jordyn share a bed. She is saving what she can to buy a car.

“My priorities are a stove, a fridge, a car,” she said. “Then maybe we can talk about internet.”

One recent morning, Coleman busied herself after work, washing the dishes and sweeping the floor while trying to keep an eye on Jordyn. The boy sat on the couch in his Pikachu pajamas, using her cellphone to watch a video about the Boston Tea Party.

He was supposed to be writing a report, but when she came to check on him, the sheet of paper in his lap was blank. “So what did you learn?” she asked him.

Jordyn said the Tea Party had something to do with a misunderstanding, but he did not know how to spell that word.

“How do you spell ‘under’?” she asked, standing over him as he wrote. “How do you spell ‘stand’?” she added. “See, you don’t need my help, you spelled the whole word.”

That afternoon, she got three hours of sleep before rising at 8 pm to catch the bus for the 70-minute ride to the casino.

A CRUCIAL TEST

When Jordyn moved to Mississippi over the summer, his mother did not have his birth certificate, delaying his registration until weeks after the start of the school year, Coleman said.

By May, Jordyn was failing in more than one class and was marked absent for 15 days, either because he had not logged in at all or had missed most of those days. If he hits 20 absences, he will be required to repeat the grade.

His situation is not unique. In the Clarksdale Municipal School District, where all of the 2,368 students qualify for free meals, a key indicator of poverty, the number of students with failing grades has increased fivefold this school year, data provided by the district shows.

Math has proved particularly difficult for Jordyn, compounded by the fact that his teacher introduced key concepts on days he missed.

When his math teacher recently showed pictures of boxes of different sizes on the video screen and asked the class to calculate their volume by using the formula she had taught them, Jordyn was stumped.

He wiggled on the couch. He bopped his shoulders to an imaginary tune. When the screen froze, he pushed a button and then pushed it again. He logged out and logged back in. He got distracted by the news alert that popped up on his mother’s phone, then by the text message she received.

“Jordyn, are you following?” his teacher asked through the screen. When he did not answer, she asked, “Jordyn, what you got?”

He unmuted himself long enough to whisper, “I don’t got anything.”

The morning of the districtwide math test in February, students streamed into the aging middle school on the banks of a muddy river, past a station where their temperatures were checked and another where they picked up the plastic shields they are required to wear over their face masks. It was chilly outside, yet the classroom windows were cracked open to increase ventilation.

The children were still wearing their jackets when the proctor began the clock. They began working furiously — but Jordyn, who is driven to school by a relative, was not there.

He arrived 40 minutes late, tiptoeing into the classroom. “My ride came,” he said, “it just came late.”

In his bulky jacket, he struggled to log into his Chromebook. His password had expired. More time passed before the teacher returned with his new login on a Post-it note.

The teacher had placed a yellow sheet of paper on every desk, and his classmates were using it to do the long division required on the test. Jordyn’s remained untouched, tucked under the banana he received as part of his free lunch.

A week later, the results came in: Jordyn had failed his math test, as well as the tests in social studies and science, according to school officials.

Unless he gets As and Bs for the rest of the year, his teachers say he may need to repeat the grade.

For nearly a week after the test, Jordyn stopped logging into his math class altogether, his instructor said.

School district officials said that they have offered to let Jordyn come into the building four days a week for added in-person instruction, but that his mother has yet to commit to the plan.

Coleman said she was uncomfortable having him board a bus early in the morning before she has returned from her shift. But she is considering using her tax return to pay for a car service to take him to school.

In the meantime, Jordyn’s name has been entered into a binder of “at-risk” students whose absences have become chronic. One-fifth of all students at Oakhurst Intermediate Academy are now listed.

c.2021 The New York Times Company