Chalk Beat Chicago | Boys Of Color Were Hit Hard By The Pandemic. What Do They Need Now?

By Mila Koumpilova  Oct 5, 2021, 4:00am CDT

As students across the country wrestled with pandemic stress last winter, sophomore Nathaniel Martinez logged on to a virtual retreat. Forty mostly Black and Latino teens in Chicago were getting a crash course on gauging how their peers were coping.

They also opened up about pressures they faced amid the COVID-19 outbreak and an uptick in gun violence, from depression to disengagement from school.

Nathaniel spoke about struggling to focus in virtual classes as he grappled with isolation and insomnia.

The project offered Nathaniel a support group of sorts as he returned to full-time in-person learning this fall, short on credits but bent on regaining his footing. It also gave him an active role in reimagining how schools can better help teens of color.

School systems have long vowed to shrink the disparities in graduation, college enrollment, and other outcomes that leave Black and Latino boys consistently behind girls of color. The pandemic’s disruption further widened such gaps. In Chicago and nationally, data show a steeper drop in attendance and a more marked increase in failing grades for male Black and Latino students.

The country’s reckoning over race has brought a greater sense of urgency to the search for solutions, and districts are flush with billions of federal pandemic relief dollars. But so far, most efforts to rethink learning for male students of color seem to be relatively small-scale, often driven by nonprofits rather than schools and colleges, say experts such as Roderick L. Carey, professor at the University of Delaware who studies the educational experiences of Black and Latino boys and young men.

“I’m not seeing many concrete steps to reimagine schooling in the wake of what we have experienced with racial unrest and COVID-19,” Carey said. “Folks seem to be just trying to get back to business as usual.”

Still, advocates are encouraged by initiatives that show promise, including new programs to steer more Black and Latino males into teaching, and efforts such as the project Nathaniel joined that give students more agency in helping find solutions. The project, a partnership between Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital and nonprofit Communities United, was just named among 10 finalists in the Kellogg Foundation’s international Racial Equity 2030 Challenge, which comes with a $1 million planning grant and a shot at winning up to $20 million.

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