Manchester elementary schools with high proportions of minority and low-income students saw drastic falloffs in attendance once schools went to remote learning in March, according to statistics shared with the Manchester school board.
The participation percentage at three elementary schools was in the 60s and low 70s for most days. On a few days, attendance plunged into the mid-50s.
Meanwhile, schools from more stable neighborhoods showed participation rates close to last year’s attendance figures. The numbers point to a participation gap, much like the achievement gap, that exists in elementary schools in the city.
An advocate for minority education said many factors could be responsible, ranging from technical problems for families with little experience in computers and internet access, to language barriers, to the lack of the structure that school provides.
“School is important because it provides a place for a student to focus on their studies. We’ve lost that, which is huge,” said Sudi Lett, youth and education coordinator for the Granite State Organizing Project and the Central High School boys’ basketball coach.
Three Manchester elementary schools are located in neighborhoods with high proportions of minority and low-income students — Beech Street and Henry Wilson in the center city and Gossler Park on the West Side.
Black and Hispanic students comprise the majority of students at Beech and Wilson streets. At Gossler, the student population is divided evenly between whites, at 50%, and all minorities (the state education department also tracks Asian and mixed-race minorities).
In written answers to emailed questions, Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen attributed the lower online participation to decisions by the families to forgo online instruction and opt for “paper package” lessons, which were delivered daily.
She did not answer a follow-up email asking about the quality of paper packets vs. online instruction.
Allen said the school district used home visits, calls to parents and partnerships with community agencies to assist in tutoring and student engagement.
“We recognize that every home environment is different and some students had more home support than others. It was a new experience for many,” she wrote.
She said the school district’s Information Technology department helped families with computer and internet issues.
Manchester schools distributed hundreds of Chromebook computers to students, and Comcast provided free hotspots for connectivity. Allen did not address follow-up questions about the success rates of those efforts.
The three schools also have demographic characteristics that are linked to educational challenges.
At least four out of every five children in all three come from low-income families; at Beech Street the number exceeds 90%.
At Beech Street and Wilson Street, more than a third of the students are English language learners. And one out of every four students at Gossler Park has a disability.
Last month, Manchester schools provided data to the school board about participation in remote learning.
The data for elementary schools was the most thorough, with online participation rates each day for each school. The data for middle schools showed participation rates for the city’s four middle schools in the aggregate. Principals for the three traditional high schools provided one-page narratives.
None of the schools provided participation rates based on demographic characteristics such as race or income level.
The Union Leader analyzed the data for three elementary schools. All saw falloffs in remote participation levels compared to the average attendance during the 2019 school year:
Beech Street had average classroom attendance of 92% last year. During remote learning, the average participation rate calculated by the Union Leader was 65%. That’s a gap of 27 percentage points.
Green Acres, located in east Manchester off South Mammoth Road, had an average online participation rate of about 92%, 4 percentage points less than its 2019 attendance rate of 96%. Green Acres is one of the highest achieving elementary schools in the city.
McDonough School, located at the east end of Lowell Street near Trinity High School, had a 2019 attendance rate of 92%. Its online participation ranked at 86%.
Lett said he’s not shocked at the falloff in participation at the schools with high levels of minority and low-income students.
What will close the participation gap? “The same thing as before COVID-19: resources, resources, resources,” Lett said.
These are the same families that needed additional services before the pandemic. He said they will lose out by the decision by Manchester aldermen last month to vote against additional education spending.
He said poor families may not have enough computers. Or families may lack the bandwidth for all the students to be online simultaneously. Often the families are headed by a single parent who works and cannot check their children’s homework, he said.
“It’s really tough on the child, having to shoulder education themselves,” Lett said.
Students were not given a failing grade because of the COVID-19 pandemic. If they did not meet the competencies of their class or complete the work, they received an “Incomplete.”
They can develop a plan to finish their work or pass a competency assessment, Allen said.
Allen said the district has created a remote learning task force. Members are reviewing responses to surveys, and the group will make recommendations about how to strengthen remote learning in terms of access, technology, professional development, curriculum and assessment.