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Rough road to graduation in pandemic year

Hundreds of seniors at Hagerty, Winter Springs and Oviedo High Schools don't have the necessary test scores yet to earn a diploma this spring. Those figures are typically in the low double digits during pre-pandemic years.

Zoie Hammock began falling behind in school at age 7 due to illness. By middle school, she was failing classes. When she transferred to Oviedo High School during her senior year in 2020, amidst a pandemic, she felt that her fate was sealed — she’d be a high school drop out.

Although most kids are back in the classroom this year, the impact of distance learning, testing mandate changes and the high number of COVID-related quarantines have left more students than ever behind in their graduation requirements. And for students like Zoie, who were struggling pre-pandemic, the hurdles before the graduation finish line are even steeper.

In a typical year, OHS has about 20 students of an over 500-student senior class who they identify as at-risk, meaning they’re behind by at least 10 credits. At the end of this past summer, the school identified about 100 seniors who had less than 19 credits earned (the number of credits needed to be considered a senior). Assistant Principal Nancy Diaz said 44 of those 100 had less than 15 credits and about 20 are enrolled in the school’s Pride program, an intensive credit-recovery program.

Zoie was enrolled as a face-to-face student last year but she began running fevers daily for weeks. Although she’d test negative for COVID-19, she couldn’t go to school with a fever. Her parents worked outside of the home so, with no one physically there to motivate her, Zoie stopped working.

“I felt like I let a lot of people down,” she said. “It was a living hell. I would fight every day, trying to get better, but my mind was holding me back.”

Diaz said it is much easier to help at-risk kids who are physically at school so last year’s virtual option made intervention difficult. This year, the high number of quarantine cases is presenting a challenge. As of Tuesday, there had been 11,396 quarantine cases within all Seminole County Public Schools since August. Active quarantine cases totaled 607.

“They normally wouldn’t miss that many classes. Quarantine is a double-edged sword,” OHS school counselor Sarah Reilly said. “It’s 100 percent necessary, but I don’t think anybody has figured out how to best accommodate it. A lot of the assignments, notes and videos are now linked on most teachers’ pages, but sometimes the kids who struggle the most aren’t going to be the ones who are motivated to go get those things.”

The mental toll

School staff are also working to help students cope with mental health issues associated with the pandemic. Reilly said this can run the gamut, from school-related stress and anxiety over getting an immunocompromised family member sick to missing school activities like prom and having a death in their family.

OHS Counselor Sarah Reilly keeps the thank-you notes and graduation announcements that her students have sent her over the past decade. She calls it her “wall of success stories”.

“Many of our kids are dealing with some really heavy stuff. If I was dealing with that stuff, there’s no way it wouldn’t affect some aspect of my performance at my job,” Reilly said.

She said she’s sensitive to the problems her kids come to her about that can be perceived as small or “kid problems” because they’re big problems in the eyes of that child.

Winter Springs High School Principal Peter Gaffney said a team of school counselors, a mental health counselor, a social worker and counselors through an outside program called New Horizons is there to help struggling students.

“Everyone around you is going through something you know nothing about. We try to be cognizant of that,” he said. “I think post pandemic, people have just been through more.”

Winter Springs school counselor Marsha McBryde said 197 seniors out of 493 either haven’t passed the state tests that are required for graduation or they haven’t taken them yet. She said there are usually around 20 or 30 in a typical year.

“A lot of kids are suffering because they come back to school and they’re so far behind,” she said. “The pressure is building.”

Hagerty High School Assistant Principal Angel Rocha said the school counselors, who typically focus more on students’ schedules, are dealing with more student mental health issues “like never before”. Mental health services are so in demand that Hagerty has issued more mental health referrals outside of the school than they ever have.

“These kids are just so stressed,” she said.

She said 131 out of 576 seniors at Hagerty do not have the test scores required for graduation. Only 14 seniors did not have those test scores the year before the pandemic. She said this can create a great deal of stress for some kids because now they have fewer chances to take the test. They have six in-school testing opportunities during the year (increased from four last year to meet demand). When taken in school the SAT, which costs $55, and the ACT, which costs $60-$85, are free.

“Six tries sounds like a lot, but it’s really not if you have a child who’s struggling,” she said.

At OHS, between 135 and 170 seniors don’t have the test scores necessary to earn a diploma this spring. Diaz said that number is typically around 35, pre-pandemic.

For more information about student mental health services, visit www.scps.k12.fl.us/district/departments/student-support-services/mental-health.

Students still have time to improve their test scores and class credits, but currently 5-to-11 times as many students, varying by school, are on pace to not graduate compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The finish line

Reilly said the key to helping at-risk kids is identifying them early. OHS and WSHS start doing credit checks when students are sophomores.

School counselors and administration constantly check in on these at-risk kids to ensure they stay on track.

“Honestly, I tell them that I am going to stalk them like they owe me money. They usually laugh, but I do,” Reilly said. In all seriousness, this means that she has frequent conversations in her office where she lets kids talk, laugh and cry, regular calls and emails with parents, and creating a plan so that students can see a path to graduation.

“They think they’ve already dug themselves into a deep hole and they give up completely,” she said. “We make that plan and review that plan often. A lot of times when they realize they have a shot, they start working harder. You can see it in their eyes — they’re proud of themselves.”

Zoie Hammock said earning her degree was always very important to her.

Zoie’s mom, Tammy Hammock, said she constantly pushed her daughter to complete her work but credits Reilly, Diaz and OHS Principal Trent Daniel for her daughter’s success.

“She might not have graduated if it weren’t for them being in her corner, pushing her and telling her she could do it.”

Despite a higher number of kids who are behind, area schools have still been able to achieve high graduation rates through their constant efforts to help their at-risk kids catch up. WSHS and HHS’s rates have hovered at 97 percent for the past several years. OHS’ rate rose from 97 percent in 2019 to 98 percent in 2020 and Diaz expects that to rise to 99 percent this year.

“I always tell [the students], nobody ever regrets getting their high school diploma,” Diaz said. “It’s so great to see them smile and see them happy. They’re so proud of themselves for making it through.”

Zoie’s story was a nail-biter at the end. Tammy recalled calling the school in May to tell them Zoie had thrown in the towel and Tammy, exhausted, had conceded. But Diaz told her that if Zoie agreed to summer school, that Zoie could earn enough credits to graduate in July. When Zoie heard her name being called on graduation day, her stomach dropped. All she could think about was what she would do if her shoe broke or what to do with her hands when she reached for the diploma. She was surprised when Daniel wrapped her in a hug on stage.

“It made me feel like I had a second chance. It made me feel so much more powerful, like if I could work at that pace and get it done, I could do anything,” she said.

When asked about the future, Zoie said she’s open minded and optimistic.

“If you push yourself and really want it, you can do it,” she said to other kids out there who might be struggling. “All it took for me was to be myself, and I accomplished more than I ever thought I could.”

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