This year's Kenwood Academy seniors have continued their predecessors' record of winning tens of millions of dollars in scholarships even as almost every other facet of the school year is different this spring.
Principal Karen Calloway spends her days in back-to-back virtual meetings, trying to ensure that students have the equipment they need to take part in remote learning. Guidance counselors are accommodating seniors' late-changing plans as the pandemic makes college life uncertain in the fall. And teachers are working to keep their students engaged amid extreme stress and growing weariness with online instruction.
"It was really hard to just hear that the school year was over," said English teacher Coreen Uhl. "I miss my students. It's not the same. It was just an abrupt end. I don't think any of us thought on March (19) that we wouldn't be returning."
At a May 14 Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference town hall, Calloway said her foremost challenge has been ensuring students are tech-ready and have enough computers. The school had distributed computers eight times; Calloway said Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has helped distribute Chromebooks after the school ran out.
Kenwood is "making sure that they … have the support, if they're going through some sort of difficult time in their own household," Calloway said. "As a principal, I try to make sure that everybody is flexible — parents are flexible, students are flexible, teachers are flexible — because we don't know what's going on in anybody's household. You can't just assume that it's always a perfect scenario and that it's business as usual, because we are not in business as usual."
In a subsequent interview, Calloway said nearly every student has a computer at this point. She and her assistant principals have been distributing them personally to students who cannot come to the school building, at 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., to get one.
Not all of Kenwood's students have engaged with online instruction. Calloway said non-teaching staff are calling their parents, which has helped identify students who lack computers or internet access.
While students' grades will not decrease because of classes taught during the remote learning period, students can improve them or they can receive a grade of incomplete if they do not participate. Calloway said students have become more engaged "now that they realize that these classes are for credit and that there's, obviously, a lot of accountability around it."
"I know they've been more focused and more engaged, because I'm getting more emails about grades," Calloway observed. "When kids' grades are not where they should be, they start emailing me about their teachers. So I know they're a little more focused, and as we get closer to the end (of the year), I think students want to finish strong."
Counselor Serena Hill has been hard at work getting graduating seniors to confirm post-secondary plans. She said 95% of them have applied to college, and 85% have reported being accepted. A few others are enlisting in the military or going into jobs or trades.
Altogether, the Class of 2020 has earned more than $41 million in scholarships with some money still uncounted — slightly above last year's haul.
"Right now, we're really in a good place. Even before the pandemic hit and the shelter-in-place went into effect, (the counseling and post-secondary team was) already communicating with our students electronically," she said. They met with the seniors in-person three times before the lock-down.
Some students are changing their college plans because of the pandemic, though. Hill said around a 40 students do not want to go far away from home now; others have decided not to enroll at a school that will be teaching classes online this fall. Many are opting to attend one of the City Colleges of Chicago for the fall semester, as they qualify for the system's tuition-free Star Scholarship, and to enroll at their originally intended college or university the following year.
In spite of everything, Hill said the students have proven their mettle in the face of the crisis.
"We have a great student body where they're very empathetic to everything that's going on in the world. They're not selfish, and they're not just thinking about themselves," she said. "One thing that I think our students do have is resilience, because they do understand that they have to move forward. They can't just stay at home and do nothing, even though right now we're all sitting at home. They understand that life is going to go on, it's just going to look different."
All the while, teachers are working to adapt their lesson plans to the remote learning period and dealing with attrition as weeks of remote instruction continue, even as the school year wanes.
Uhl, who teaches Advanced Placement English, is dealing with a radically changed standardized test that gives her students a change to earn college credit. The exam has been truncated to just one essay from three and a long multiple choice section; it will be administered online.
"It's been an adjustment, but as teachers, we are naturally adaptable and flexible," she said, explaining that she has done some one-on-one online meetings with students who have missed assignments and that due dates have become more flexible. "We kind of have jumped right in terms of adjusting out curriculum as best as we can to fit an online format. It's definitely challenging, but we have been doing our best to make those adjustments while considering individual students' circumstances."
Another English teacher, Amy Massarsky, said her students have proceeded with a poetry unit using Google Meet sessions about literary devices and interpretation. But she has not been able to teach "Romeo and Juliet," finding it too hard to read the Early Modern English aloud line-by-line over the remote instruction.
Finding ways for students to collaborate with one another has been challenging outside of a classroom, Massarsky said, and many students are now working on assignments alone.
The teachers have been doing two live meetings a week with each class. Teacher-recorded instructional videos or interactive components sometimes accompany posted assignments on Google Classroom. But Ulh said it is challenging for teachers to keep up with emails, problem troubleshooting and feedback — all while Massarsky said students are struggling to keep up with schedules and a lack of motivation.
"Some of them will send me emails: 'I'm so sorry I missed the call today; I overslept.' Or, 'I wasn't feeling well,'" she said. The district's clearer grading policy and Kenwood administration's engagement with parents and students have made a difference in leading students to their studies, but fatigue is present.
"The students miss their peers. I think they miss their teachers," Uhl said. "It's one thing to see your teacher's face on Google Meet, but it's another thing to be in the classroom together."
Massarsky said students are telling her they want to do their best and feel bad about being burned out. "They have a lot of pressure to perform at a high level, and they want to do it. But they don't really know where to start in terms of structuring their day," she said.
But, as Uhl pointed out, teachers are lucky to have had months of in-person time to get to know their students, which has come in handy as they emotionally support them during the pandemic. Uhl said she wants to ensure that the students are mastering poetry analysis, but she and other teachers are reaching out about whether students are getting the support they need and taking steps for emotional well-being. But she said it is hard to do without seeing them face-to-face.
While CPS has not given her any directions, Principal Calloway said she is considering contingency plans for the next academic year.
"I'm planning for if we do resume for the fall in class; I'm planning for if we don't resume in the fall in class," she said. "It's challenging; it's double-thinking, but it's the only way you get a head start on what you need to do."