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They’ve spent freshman year learning alone. Now these Baltimore students are adjusting to (something like) high school.

Anxiety gnawed at Baijah Jones. Yet she tried to shove those thoughts into the background as, at long last, the ninth grader took her first steps through the doors of Reach Partnership Academy and into its light-filled atrium earlier this month.

“You don’t have to be this nervous. It’s not like you haven’t been around people before,” she told herself.

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Baltimore City is slowly reopening its school buildings for a first batch of students who have decided to return. This initial phase is elementary students and ninth graders.

For ninth graders, like Baijah and 40 others at Reach, this is their introduction to high school, seven months into the school year: still learning in a silo, wearing headphones and working through lessons on their laptops. They are entering the school building without friendships and established relationships with teachers, the social connections that make a school a community. Despite the quasi-remote nature of in-person learning, they are forced to forge those links quickly.

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For Baijah, that has meant finding her way around the recently renovated Clifton Park school with its white walls and large windows peering out on Harford Road. She was looking forward to banter in the hallways between classes and the joy of watching a basketball game.

Baijah Jones, a ninth grader at Reach Partnership School in East Baltimore, works on her laptop She is one of about 40 students who returned this month to in-person learning there.
Baijah Jones, a ninth grader at Reach Partnership School in East Baltimore, works on her laptop She is one of about 40 students who returned this month to in-person learning there. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Since August, she and her classmates had appeared to one another as black squares on a computer screen. Because some parents and students didn’t want a camera view into their homes, the district didn’t require students to show their faces. So interaction had been mostly through the chat feature in their online meeting. Ninth graders rarely saw anyone but their teachers, and most students didn’t like to unmute themselves to speak, educators and students observed.

“They haven’t had the opportunity to sit in a classroom to make friends. No one sees what is going on behind the camera,” said Tarita McCallum, a ninth grade math teacher at Reach. She and other teachers said they had tried to coax students out but had generally been unsuccessful. They feared the silence and lack of interaction meant students were signing on to be marked present and then going back to bed or not paying attention.

Shy and introverted, Christian Wright had been looking forward to his ninth grade year as a way to become a different person, with a social life.

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“I am not a very open person,” he said. “My hope for high school was to make friends and actually be social.” Instead, he said, he had spent the year at home, connected to a couple of his middle school friends and trying to do his school work in a house with a lot of distractions.

Now that he’s in school, he said, he has been able to focus. “I am more productive. I finish my work.”

But after several days there, he wasn’t making friends. Largely, he and other students were constrained by face masks, desks with plastic shields, hallways patrolled by custodians wiping down surfaces and grab-and-go lunches picked up from carts.

Christian Wright, 15, works on his laptop during a class.
Christian Wright, 15, works on his laptop during a class. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

McCallum said she has noticed a difference between the attitudes of students in other grades — who are excited by the prospect of returning to a familiar place — and those ninth graders who have never had a connection to the school.

Many ninth graders, she said, don’t appear to want to be back in school. For the first couple of days, they seemed to be shy and not connecting with their peers. She noted body language and interactions in some that she interpreted as discomfort or hesitation about the return to in-person instruction; perhaps their parents were making them, she wondered.

There is pressure for everyone in finally meeting face-to-face. Biology teacher Paula Dangerfield-Carr planned her ensemble for the first day back, recalling that her students had viewed her only from the waist up all year.

“This is the first time we see each other. … We want to be liked, just like the kids. We want to give a first good impression,” she said.

And as with most first days, her students were shy and on their best behavior. As the days went by, though, she could hear almost all of them speaking up in class and gradually talking to one another — still six feet apart — during lunch.

Baijah liked the interaction.

“The best part of school was … getting up close to a person and talking to them,” she said. She hasn’t gotten close yet, but it’s been better than learning from home. “In person you can hear another person’s perspective, not just [see] something they typed in the box.”

The 40 ninth graders who have returned are not even a quarter of the entire class of 150 freshmen. And they are still learning online, even though they are physically in a classroom.

Science teacher Paula Dangerfield-Carr conducts a science experiment for students watching on their laptops.
Science teacher Paula Dangerfield-Carr conducts a science experiment for students watching on their laptops. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

One day last week, Dangerfield-Carr stood in her room teaching to a class of students who were online, while all around her other students were taking classes from teachers elsewhere in the building.

One student was discussing “To Kill a Mockingbird” while another was learning math. Meanwhile, Dangerfield-Carr was doing a science experiment with beakers at her desk, then holding up her laptop so that her students could see the white board in front of the classroom.

James Gresham, the principal, is relieved to be walking around his school again, poking his nose into classrooms. His ninth grade students have been the most disconnected from school, he said, despite a goal to have every ninth grade teacher contact parents, offering support and guidance for their children.

Reach, a Baltimore City public school operated by the nonprofit Civic Works, has focused on promoting wellness through daily and weekly routines that allow students time to talk about issues in their lives and their communities. Teachers start each day, Gresham said, with a classroom discussion on a topic.

“Ninth graders have been the toughest for us,” he said, because those wellness activities aren’t the same online and these students don’t have any connections to their classmates. The number of mental health referrals for students is down this year, Gresham said, because his teachers can’t physically see their students.

“When you are in person, you can read a kid’s body language. You can go into a classroom and see his head is down,” he said. Remotely, “It is hard to gauge what is really happening. Not having that relationship has made it very difficult.”

Principal James Gresham walks through a hall at Reach Partnership School in East Baltimore.
Principal James Gresham walks through a hall at Reach Partnership School in East Baltimore. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Ninth graders have the highest number of failing grades, according to district data.

But teachers said they are seeing some signs of improvement with the students who are back. They are starting to reach out and realize they have a common interest with a teacher or another student.

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McCallum, the math teacher, said she has noticed small changes in attitudes.

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“They are starting to chat with each other,” she said.” I do believe that kids are resilient, and they will bounce back. I don’t think [this year] will be something that haunts them for the rest of their life.”

One day when the weather was a little warmer, Gresham decided to let teachers and students go outside for lunch. In the beginning, students sat on benches separated from one another, but soon they began forming clusters or sitting with each other, their backs against a wall.

And Baijah had news to report: “I have made one friend.”

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