Some Iowa students are struggling after returning to in-person instruction

DES MOINES, Iowa (WHO) – Jose Flores, 8, comes home from a full day of school just in time to go home and go to work. As a third grader in the Des Moines Public School District, he has some catching up to do.

“We’re not there yet, he’s still meeting second grade goals,” said his mother, Mireya Flores. “It comes down to him putting himself down, so he’s setting himself apart from getting where he should be, but it’s progress. He started in kindergarten when he first started.”

Like when he started working full-time this year. When the pandemic hit two years ago, Jose went on spring break and like the other kids in Iowa, he didn’t go back because school went 100% online. Virtual learning at the Flores home, where English is not everyone’s first language, was a daily struggle.

“We both work full-time, so he stays with my mum. She’s not techy at all so it was fine to sign him in in the morning before I went to work, but when they went on break and had to sign back in in the afternoon he didn’t know how to sign in, my mum knew didn’t know how to sign in, so he only missed half a day of school,” Flores said.

Now, as a third grader in subjects like reading and math, he’s lost interest a bit.

“I misunderstand the answer, but it’s okay because it doesn’t matter,” Jose said.

This does not go down well with his mother and father.

“I don’t want to see him fight,” Flores said with tears in his eyes. “I only want what’s best for him. I want to make life easy but I know I can’t and if he puts himself down it’s just what can I do to make it easier for him and not make him feel like this is the hard part is.

The Iowa Department of Education released data in October comparing proficiency across subjects. In 2019, before the pandemic, Iowa students scored 67.3% proficiently, while DMPS students scored 46.5%. The most recent report of 2021-22 shows that students across the state have maintained their reading proficiency as the proportion of DMPS students has increased to 49.5%. But in math, both statewide and DMPS scores fell, about five percentage points statewide and six percentage points for DMPS students.

“There’s definitely an opportunity to improve this data and the team, and I’ve been working on that,” DMPS interim superintendent Matt Smith said during a Nov. 1 school board meeting.

Of the 55 DMPS schools surveyed by the Iowa Department of Education, 29 schools were rated as performing below what the department considers acceptable.

“The pandemic has hit Des Moines public schools and students like everyone else. Our students felt it, our families felt it, our staff felt it. We say here that we cannot intervene in performance gaps, but that we must close these performance gaps with our students on a daily basis. We offer this daily support and progress monitoring for students who don’t meet these cut scores on a daily basis,” Smith said.

Jose is involved in small group work every day.

“He goes every day with a teacher and some other kids. They do small jobs,” Flores said.

But it wasn’t enough to close the gap. So they turned to outside help and are paying for it out of their own pockets.

“His main focus is reading. They’re trying to get him back to his third-grade reading level,” Flores said.

The Flores family is not alone.

Across town on the West Side, Suszy Mataloni has found her second calling after being an elementary school teacher who was sent home early during her final year of class due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It wasn’t the way you want to retire after 32 years, but it was a card we were dealt and just like everyone, we made it work,” Mataloni said.

She didn’t stay long in retirement. Parents in their neighborhoods have expressed concern about their children’s performance at school. So far she has taught 23 students.

Her basement entertainment area now doubles as a classroom. In lieu of libations behind the bar, a trolley holds lesson plans for each student’s individual needs.

“Every grade level is important. Especially reading, arithmetic and writing is all basic, so it builds and builds every year. So if they don’t have certain math concepts, or if they don’t have control over the type ‘E’ or short vowels, it’s going to affect their reading, writing and math skills,” Mataloni said.

For those who struggle, their confidence suffers, which can directly impact their desire to keep trying, Maloni said.

“Some people don’t have a sense of urgency. I’ve always had a sense of urgency even before the pandemic. What can parents do? value education. Introduce that to your child.”

Smith said the district is currently focusing on preschool reading literacy initiatives through third grade students.

“One hundred percent. 100 percent, there’s a sense of urgency for every kid, whether they’re behind in school or ahead in school. Every student, every day is our motto. Every student, every day, whatever it takes,” Smith said .

So far, the Flores family has not lost the sense of urgency.

“I hope to get him to graduate from high school and get him where he needs to be, give him his educational goals and make school easier and more fun for him,” Flores said.

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