Ariel Santos Ramon came to the United States from a small town in Mexico about a year ago and enrolled at Newcomer Academy, the school for Jefferson County Public Schools students in grades 6-12 who are new to the country. Then, after just a month of in-person instruction, the pandemic forced JCPS — and Santos Ramon with it — to move to remote learning.
“It was difficult the first few weeks because I didn’t have a lot of English,” Santos Ramon said, speaking through an interpreter. “And I didn’t really know the technology.”
Santos Ramon, now a senior, grappled with learning to use Google Classroom and many other web applications, all in a language he barely understood. While he’s doing much better now thanks to his teachers, he said, the 17-year-old thinks he’s further behind than he would be if classes were in person.
“I try to get the most out of it,” he said. “But I feel that it definitely has set me back.”
The shift to online learning has been difficult for all students. But for students who are recent immigrants and still learning English, the challenges are enormous.
Data obtained by WFPL shows 71.6% of JCPS English Language Learners (ELL) in high school were failing at least one class during the first six weeks of the school year. That’s up from 50.9% in 2019, and significantly more than the 46.2% of non-ELL students who had a failing grade in the first term of this academic year.
Educators say there are many reasons their ELL students are failing in nontraditional instruction (NTI), in which classes are taught via video conference. In addition to the language barrier, many immigrant students can’t participate because they are working to help support their families in the U.S. and abroad. For some, the technology is so new, it’s overwhelming.
“Some of these kids, when we send them a computer, that’s the first computer they’ve ever put their hands on,” Newcomer Academy mental health practitioner Jenni Garmon said.
Everina Kiza, a 16-year-old sophomore from Tanzania, said she had used computers before coming to the U.S., but remote learning is still difficult.
“Being in-person is better because you get to interact with the teachers, and you get to meet friends,” Kiza said through an interpreter.
Kiza speaks Swahili. She came to Louisville through the refugee resettlement program, and lives in a house with her parents and six other siblings. She got to Newcomer Academy two weeks before classes went online. Kiza said for the first two or three months her family didn’t have internet access, so she was participating in school through paper packets and phone conversations with teachers.
Now that she can get online from home, Kiza has never missed a single web session. But she struggles with turning in assignments.
“Sometimes they give me assignments, and I am not able to complete them, and I do not understand them,” she said.
Kiza can call a Swahili-speaking staff member when she has questions. Newcomer Academy has staff who speak many languages and is the most supportive environment for students learning English. Other JCPS schools have far fewer resources for ELL students, sometimes sharing one ELL coordinator with several other schools.
The district has made a number of resources available to ELL students and their families. Schools can use an on-demand phone-based interpreting service called Language Line. The district also has an app called School Connect, which automatically translates text messages sent between school staff and non-English-speaking parents and students. But students and families don’t always have enough comfort with technology to download the app, sign in and use it.
While Kiza and Santos Ramon have their challenges, they are not failing their classes.
Santos Ramon said classes are actually moving faster than before the pandemic because many of the students who needed more attention from teachers are simply not showing up in the remote setting. These “no-shows” are the students Newcomer Academy English language teacher Scott Wade worries most about.
“I have 100 students,” Wade said. “My last assignment we had 55 turn in the work. And we actually consider that pretty good.”
There are a lot of different reasons students have stopped participating, Wade said. He thinks many become discouraged after struggling to understand a web session or assignment. Then the longer they’re out, the harder it is to jump back into class.
“That student will miss a day and week, and then a month, and then they give up,” he said.
Others he said are working full-time. Some students’ parents have lost jobs because of the pandemic. Some are also sending money to family in their country of origin.
Garmon, the school’s mental health practitioner, said staff work hard to reach out to students over and over again when they don’t show, but sometimes it’s hard to argue with students’ choice to pick employment over NTI.
“In this situation, education doesn’t feel as valuable as when they were in the building,” she said. “So they are making a conscious choice to pay their bills instead of trying to kill themselves by going to school all day and then [working] second shift.”
Newcomer junior Ariana Berroa Rossis said that’s the decision she thinks one of her friends has made.
“We were good friends when we were taking classes together in person,” Berroa Rossis said. “But now she never comes to online classes.”
Her friend’s phone number has changed, so she hasn’t been able to reach her, and neither has the school. She can’t be sure what happened, but she believes her friend decided to work instead of do NTI.
“She always preferred working over studying,” she said.
Now in a remote setting, school is even less enticing.
Wade, the English teacher, said staff have to do some real detective work to try to find students who go dark. Each week teachers make a list of students who didn’t show and spend hours on days off trying to contact them. They use social media, WhatsApp, texting. Wade keeps track of which students are friends so he can ask those who are regulars to contact others who don’t show.
“That happened this morning,” he said. “I said to the student, ‘Hey, call Luis, and wake him up. And let’s get going here.’”
A few minutes later, Luis popped into the web session.
Wade said sometimes the detective work pays off. But not always. He notes again that only 55 students came to his last web session, out of 100.
“And that means 45 weren’t there,” he said.
He’s hoping the draw of friendships and socializing will entice students to reappear once classes begin again in person.