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Help wanted: School systems must act now to support graduating seniors

COVID-19 disrupted the already tenuous system of support for students graduating high school and going on to college or career. Students from low-income households and students of color have been hit hardest. In 2020 many graduating seniors—especially those from schools serving students from low-income households—held off on college. Newly graduated students who wanted to transition to work found themselves competing with 14.8 million adults who lost employment because of the pandemic.

Now, a year into the pandemic, what are students’ prospects for successfully navigating life after high school in a still uncertain landscape?

We set out to answer this question as part of our exploration of how New England’s high schools are navigating the pandemic. We interviewed eight high school parents and eight educators in three New England school districts. We also examined publicly available information from a sample of 86 public school systems, as well as statewide guidance and new initiatives in New England’s six states, looking for district or state action that aimed to support students’ transition from high school to college or career.

Our findings suggest urgent action is needed to address the challenges facing students transitioning out of high school.

Families are worried about their childrens’ readiness for life after graduation. Yet few districts are communicating how they are supporting students to make successful college and career transitions. New England states have made investments in modest new initiatives to address these challenges, but their actions are insufficient to help students make up for lost learning or support them to enter an uncertain adult world rife with unemployment and a shifting economic landscape.

Without decisive action, the pandemic has the potential to cause long-term harm to students’ college and career opportunities. Families and students deserve immediate help navigating transitions to life after high school graduation that promise to be more difficult than usual.

Families fear that their children are not prepared to navigate the transition out of high school

Families we interviewed said their high schoolers were not learning as much this year as they had in the past. One student struggled so much with remote learning that he had to drop all his honors and advanced courses. Another went from stellar grades to struggling over the course of this past year, causing him to drop his classes. These experiences echo the epidemic of failing grades nationwide.

School systems have responded to this challenge with new policies that aim to give students more flexibility. Though nearly every school system in New England (91 percent, or 78 school systems) we reviewed kept grading or credit requirements in place this school year, 41 percent (35 school systems) created guidelines that give students leeway in returning assignments and assessments.

While this flexibility can help students complete work, it is unlikely to address the gaps in learning students face. Families told us they worried that their high schoolers might receive passing grades under these modified policies, but still have gaps in their preparation for college or the workplace. Said one mother about her senior: “We’re happy in a lot of ways, but I’m worried moving forward. What is [it] going to look like for him next year? Because last year and this year, it’s not the same as his first two years [of high school].” Or, as another poignantly observed, “You have a little [time] to teach these kids physics, math, science, reading [and] writing. They learn that and they use it the rest of their life. If they miss out on this opportunity to get an education . . . it’s going to cost them.”

There is growing evidence that students will cover less material this year—which could leave them less prepared for the future. Teachers we spoke with noted that they have had to reduce the content and standards they cover because they do not want to overwhelm students. This is consistent with national data. In one nationally representative survey, teachers said they have not been able to teach as much as in previous years, and that their students are struggling to keep up with grade-level content.

While narrowing learning objectives does not necessarily set students up to struggle, it is unclear if school systems are systematically setting expectations about the most important knowledge and skills that teachers should cover.

Few districts have concrete plans to address learning gaps. For example, just 15 school systems referenced tutoring as part of their fall reopening plans.

Concerns about academic preparation combine with other stressors. We spoke to one parent who lost her job because of the pandemic, so her graduating senior had to abandon a scholarship to an out-of-state university. Thankfully, he could still attend the local community college and live at home, but he is isolated from new classmates and struggling to adjust to his new life trajectory.

National surveys show these disruptions to students’ postsecondary plans are all too common. According to YouthTruth, one in four high school seniors say their postsecondary plans have changed since the start of the pandemic. Students learning remotely are much less likely to report that their high school has prepared them for the transition to college or career.

School systems and states offer limited support to high school students 

While students and families face significant challenges amid the pandemic, school systems and states have yet to put forth clear plans to address them. Only 26 (30 percent) of the district reopening plans we reviewed referenced programming or strategies to support students through postsecondary transitions. Most of those mentioned efforts to adapt career and technical education courses or transition counseling to remote learning or social distancing. Forty districts (47 percent) appeared to be holding events like financial aid sessions or college fairs, albeit virtually.

We heard about some efforts to increase support and provide it virtually where necessary.

Parents in one Connecticut district said the support their son received from the college counselor helped them navigate an uncertain future. “They’ve handled the seniors very well, or the juniors going into their senior year. They kept in communication with them. . . . They created workshops throughout the summer to get them ready for their senior year [and] to make sure that they’re keeping on top of things.”

Counselors are navigating difficult conditions. One told us about her efforts to bring students and parents together that yielded productive family-school connections around course progression and postsecondary pathways. But with caseloads often exceeding hundreds of students, it’s difficult to give every student the support they need.

States in New England invested in some modest new supports and programming to address the challenges students and their families are facing this year. These include boosting financial aid for families with low incomes, investments in online access to Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses, and support for summer youth employment. Each of these initiatives could help some families and their children overcome barriers to a successful transition out of high school. But no state has put forward a comprehensive plan that will address the gaps in preparation fueled by the pandemic. Nor are they implementing solutions that will address the challenges students from low-income households and students of color have long faced in accessing adequate support to navigate these transitions.

Just one state, Rhode Island, offered specific guidance to local school systems on how to maintain support for graduating seniors during the pandemic. Its recommendations focused on how guidance counselors could continue services virtually by offering “virtual tours” and webinars on the application process.

States, districts, and schools should act now to support graduating seniors

Seniors have just a few months before graduation—they must not be cast adrift. Early evidence reveals troubling trends, with FAFSA completion rates dropping 16 percent nationwide and 18 percent in Massachusetts.

With the federal American Rescue Plan due to provide school systems with new resources, states and districts must step up now to ensure every young person disrupted by the pandemic is on the path toward success after high school.

Most immediately, states and school districts must double down on outreach to connect with students set to graduate this spring. These students are at risk of falling out of reach once they exit the K–12 system: now is the time to ensure every student has resources available to them to navigate the future.

Looking toward the summer, states and school systems should capitalize on the infusion of new federal dollars to support students to address gaps in preparation, solidify plans for college or a career path, and access meaningful experiences that will help them navigate the transition. Summer bridge academies and intensive college and career counseling, such as those offered by Chicago-based charter school network Noble and Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut, could be part of a comprehensive plan that positions students, including those who graduate this spring, to succeed despite the challenges they’ve faced during the pandemic. They could also provide college exploration activities for students who may have deferred their decision and help youth navigate financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

Policymakers must also remove financial barriers to access college or the world of work. Rhode Island’s Promise initiative is one example of how states can expand access to postsecondary education by offering high school graduates two years of tuition-free community or technical college. Expanding youth employment initiatives like the one offered in Connecticut could help students gain valuable work experience, identify the right postsecondary training for their career of choice, and find long-term work. Regional employers can help by recruiting recent graduates for summer internships. States in New England have made some moves in these directions; they should double down on these efforts to ensure all students who need help get it.

Time is short. States and school systems must act now to ensure every young person disrupted by the pandemic is on a path toward success.

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