In Minneapolis’ urban Catholic schools, student support goes well beyond distance learning

| Christina Capecchi | May 4, 2020 | 0 Comments

Bryan Sinchi, a fourth-grader at Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis, receives a pizza from Principal Joelynn Sartell April 29 in front of his south Minneapolis apartment building. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Joelynn Sartell likens it to a skyscraper.

Educating children can feel like a massive construction project, building on fundamentals in order to reach great heights. As principal of Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis, Sartell uses the analogy to convey the intricacy of a Catholic education.

Now that the coronavirus has forced her school to close and implement distance learning, Sartell said, that skyscraper is in new hands: “Imagine someone knocked at your door, handed you a blueprint and said, ‘Take care of this skyscraper. It better not fall.’ That’s what we just asked parents to do.”

The charge is especially daunting for families living in poverty, which hinders their access to elements that are now crucial such as technology, tutors, translators, childcare, food and income. Sartell understands their needs well: More than 90% of Risen Christ students qualify for free or reduced lunch based on family income.

Urban Catholic schools with the largest low-income populations in the archdiocese are moving mountains to make remote learning work, but their closures have resulted in a considerable lag in the tutoring that had been taking place, threatening to widen the achievement gap and capsize already stressed families.

At Risen Christ, which enrolls 330 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, the staff have tried to alleviate their burdens one by one.

“It’s been baptism by fire,” Sartell said. “This is not distance learning. This is emergency distance learning. There’s a difference.”

To begin, Risen Christ staff equipped their students with the technology needed for online learning, offering to lend them tablets and Chromebooks from the classroom — one per family. About 80% needed them, Sartell said.

Next came an exhaustive effort to ensure that each student has access to the internet. Rather than simply alerting parents to Comcast’s new COVID-19 offer of free wireless, staff members made the calls for their parents to get them set up.

“It wasn’t a quick process,” Sartell said. “For some it took about two weeks.”

Providing learning materials in both English and Spanish was paramount, including the SeeSaw app, live video calls on Zoom and the IXL educational website. Spanish is the first language in the vast majority of Risen Christ families.

If parents are in the dark because of a language barrier, trouble can ensue. Some students tried to convince their Spanish-speaking parents that school is on hiatus due to the coronavirus, Sartell said.

Faculty coordinate Zoom calls with care, mindful of how many families are sharing one device. Teachers make a point to check the previously scheduled Zoom calls for their students’ siblings before setting a time.

Keeping in touch

Keeping every student engaged has required the outreach of some 18 staff members, Sartell said. They’ve set up a process to check in with families who fall silent.

After a day of no contact, someone sends an email. The message: “Is everything OK?”

After a second day, someone calls.

Their efforts are paying off. Around 85% are communicating with their teachers on a daily basis, Sartell said.

She tries to respond to all their needs. Every Monday parents come to the school for a drive-through pick-up of free meals. A link on the school’s website that says “How can we help you?” leads to a simple Google form where parents can request other forms of help.

The school’s City Connects employee is busy helping families access resources from Minneapolis, including those who have lost their work and are struggling to pay bills.

Viviana Dominguez is among them. Her job doing food prep at a restaurant got reduced to four hours a week, and her husband lost his factory job due to COVID-19.

“It’s very difficult,” she told a translator in Spanish.

Thankfully, Risen Christ supplied her daughters with a tablet and free food. And when Dominguez called to discuss her job loss, she was told not to worry about tuition. “It was a huge burden lifted off my shoulders,” she said.

Sartell confirmed that donors are aware of the pandemic’s devastating impact and are increasing financial aid as needed.

Still, Dominguez wishes she could be of greater service to her daughters, who are in second and fifth grade. Most of their online materials appear in English and do not make sense to her, she said. “It’s stressful because I wish I could help the girls more,” she said.

Instead, her older daughter periodically helps her younger daughter. No doubt, it is not the same as receiving in-person instruction from an experienced teacher.

These educational gaps are emerging in more pronounced ways among low-income students. Many rely on tutors, whose aid was largely absent from the initial weeks of distance learning.

A legion of nearly 100 volunteer tutors help Risen Christ students, but as their primary teachers were consumed by planning and executing their own brand-new online lessons, they were unable to set up the tutors.

In late April, one month after remote learning began, the tutors were just beginning to be utilized online.

Risen Christ’s Title I and Title III teachers, meanwhile, were directed to focus on the highest risk students, which make up about 20% of the student body — even though two-thirds qualify for those services based on their standardized test scores, attendance and lack of a permanent home.

“Some of those kids are on pause right now,” Sartell acknowledged.

Arranging additional online meetings with specialists — on top of the regular requirements — is an unrealistic expectation for some families right now. “With those kids, just doing what the teacher is asking was hard enough,” she said.

Teachers recognize those pressures and, as needed, have scaled back the workload. They intend to be proactive about making up any losses. In late May, the Risen Christ faculty will document where they left off with their standards and confer with teachers of the subsequent grade to determine how they should adjust the fall curriculum.

Teachers at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School Twin Cities in Minneapolis will be making similar adjustments as they recalibrate for the fall. The school donated or loaned more than 100 computers to students, though it could have used more, according to Principal Erin Healy. Some students are still relying on smartphones to do their distance learning, she said.

Healy and her team also secured funding to set up around 75 hotspots for students and recent graduates. Around a dozen staff members check in with students to help keep them engaged on a daily basis — and the majority are.

“However, we have students in each grade who are still really struggling and have completed far less work,” Healy said.

Mental health

Unlike grade school students living in poverty, teens shoulder an additional burden: taking on jobs or picking up extra hours to make up for their parents’ COVID-related job loss. Sometimes it’s too much to bear.

“I worry about them every day,” Healy said.

Faculty have tried to make distance learning as manageable as possible, in part by doing asynchronous classes. Not all students can meet at a set time when some have jobs. It also helps families who have limited devices and bandwidth.

Like Risen Christ, Cristo Rey Jesuit has not been able to maintain its robust tutoring program. Before the high school closed, about 120 of the 485 students were in tutoring. As of late April, only 20 were being tutored online. More are participating every day though, Healy said.

The school’s two full-time counselors and one part-time counselor are busy helping students cope with the myriad stresses brought on by the coronavirus.

Being mindful of those stresses, Healy said, is what distinguishes a Catholic education, which forms a student’s body, mind and soul.

“Our approach isn’t: ‘Where’s your stuff? What’s the problem?’” Healy said. “We care deeply about academics. We have really high standards. But right now, we’re emphasizing the Jesuit principle of ‘cura personalis,’ care of the whole person. First and foremost, we want to make sure the student is doing OK.”

Offering the kind of spiritual support that Cristo Rey Jesuit students have come to rely on is more urgent than ever during a pandemic, Healy said. That’s why the school has continued its ritual of doing a daily examen at 1:20 p.m. This is supplemented by virtual prayer services and encouraging videos from faculty members.

Sartell models a similar approach at Risen Christ. “If a student seems out of sorts, your first question should always be about the social and emotional aspect and not ‘How come I didn’t get your assignment?’”

After 30 years in education, she’s learned that when an academic or behavior problem pops up, there’s always an underlying issue at home.

Blanketing students in a strong sense of community through school helps — which requires some creativity now that they are apart. Sartell launched “Virtual Bingo with the Principal,” which has been a fun way to stay connected.

The winner promptly receives a free pizza delivered by Sartell herself, joined by staff members who practice social distancing. They chant and cheer for the student at the front door, leaving behind warm food and warm hearts.

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