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High schoolers spent most of senior year in COVID-19 lockdown. Are freshmen college-ready?

Cristina Carreon
El Paso Times

Anthony High School counselor Rebecca Saldivar received a troubling email from a local professor about some of her best students that their bright academic careers were suddenly in peril.

"Academically, their grade point averages all suffered — they all went down," Saldivar said. "Kids I had in dual credit, they'd been perfectly successful before and in one of my classes, one professor emailed me toward the end and said there was five of them that hadn't logged in in two or three weeks."

Saldivar said all 40 of her seniors suffered academically last year, which impacted an important bridge from high school to higher education. College readiness plays an important role in retention at higher education institutions. 

A March 2020 study cited in a College Board report about college enrollment and retention during the pandemic found nearly one in six high school students in the graduating class of 2020 reported they were reconsidering enrolling in college.

After 14 months of lockdown and the subsequent reopening for in-person learning at University of Texas at El Paso, student retention among incoming freshmen has declined at the university.

High school counselors and university officials are now trying to determine whether new college freshmen, many of whom spent most of their senior year of high school learning remotely, are ready for college academically and socially.

UTEP works with high school counselors and El Paso Community College for outreach efforts at area high schools, as well as helping design academic pathways students can take toward earning a college degree.

UTEP and EPCC regularly partner for recruitment and engagement efforts at local high schools, said Virginia Fraire, UTEP Vice Provost for Student Success and Strategic Initiatives and Office of the Provost liaison to El Paso Community College.

But those efforts were diminished with high school campuses locked down last year, Fraire said.

"The university was having a really hard time connecting with the high school students," Fraire said. 

"During the pandemic our lifeline was the counselors," she said. "Because some of these students were disconnected and even if they had the ability to be plugged in, they were emotionally not plugged in, so we were relying a lot on high school counselors to help get the word out and help get the students together."

More:Students are falling behind in online school. Where's the COVID-19 'disaster plan' to catch them up?

College freshman retention drops during COVID-19 

Student retention among all grade levels was at an all time high in 2020 at 84.8%; meaning after the pandemic hit in spring and the UTEP campus closed and switched to virtual instruction, a majority of students continued attending the university last fall.

Freshman student retention dropped to 69.9% in 2021 from 77.2% in fall 2020, which increased from 75.4% in fall 2019, according to retention data provided by Fraire. 

"These new students are most likely affected by barriers to building community with their peers on campus and stronger engagement with the university," Fraire said.

"UTEP serves a student population with varying background characteristics who likely experienced the effects of the pandemic differently. First-year students who did not return in fall may likely have faced issues affecting their finances and families," she said.

From fall 2020 to fall 2021: the first-generation freshmen retention rate was 67.2%, for low-income students it was 68% and for scholarship students it was 86.2%.

Nayeli Coleman, Ysleta High School graduate and current UTEP freshman majoring in art, takes time in-between classes to create an original drawing, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at UTEP in El Paso. Coleman talked about acclimating to college life after graduating high school in 2020 in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic slowed down learning process for high school seniors, new college freshman

Raul Villalobos, a freshman in electrical engineering at UTEP, learned remotely and in-person last year at Ysleta High School.

Villalobos would wake up early and face hours-long wait times to cross the U.S.-Mexico border from Juárez to finish high school amid pandemic travel restrictions. 

"It took away the worry about crossing the border in the mornings, but it still affected me and at the beginning, I thought I wasn't progressing," Villalobos said. "At the beginning, not having the teacher in front of you, it was difficult."

That was especially true in core subjects such as math.

Texas school districts where a quarter or more of students learned virtually saw performance on standardized tests in math drop by 32 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, the Texas Tribune reported in July. The number of students who met grade level in reading dropped by nine percentage points compared to 2019.

Because the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board issued an alternative COVID-19 college placement to determine college readiness during the pandemic, it has been difficult to determine if more than the usual number of college freshmen actually need remedial classes in core subjects like math and English this year, Fraire said.

The alternative placement assessment will remain in place until fall 2022, so it will be difficult to ascertain true college readiness for some time among students who are exempt from the TSIA because of grades in high school. 

Normally, students complete the Texas Success Initiative Assessment to determine if they are ready for college-level courses. Though high school students can still take the TSIA, during the pandemic, seniors who earned an A or B in college algebra and/or earned an overall high school GPA of 2.75 are considered college ready. 

Students had a range of experiences with virtual instruction but the quality of interactions among students and their peers and faculty is key to creating a sense of belonging and a supportive learning environment, Fraire said.

“From a pedagogical standpoint, students are best served by an engaged, in-person learning experience that allows them direct access to their instructors, their peers and to activities beyond the classroom that promote their well-being and their academic development,” Fraire said.

More:Back-to-school on the border means long wait times for US citizen student

Virginia Fraire, UTEP vice provost for student success and strategic initiatives, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at UTEP in El Paso. Fraire talked about how UTEP freshmen are acclimating to college life after graduating high school in 2020 in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

UTEP bridges learning gaps for college freshman

Like accelerated learning and tutoring services being offered in K-12 schools to address learning loss attributed to the pandemic, UTEP is helping high school graduates prepare for college.

UTEP collaborates with area high schools for summer bridge programs via the UTEP Prep program. Students enroll in the six-week program for six semester credit hours to help prepare for their first semester.

The program is open at little-to-no-cost to qualified students who filed a FAFSA.

One of the classes, a two-week math program called Mad Dog Math, helps incoming freshmen who did not meet college-level math standards by just a few points. The program serves about 100 students each summer.

UTEP also ran a co-requisite pre-calculus course during the last two summers.

"It was college math faculty and developmental math faculty teaching these students during the course of the summer," Fraire said. "It was a very intense short semester, and what we saw in this co-requisite is that every single student passed and, not only did they pass, they passed with 'As' and 'Bs' and these students have now moved on to their calculus class."

"So we understand that there are some areas, especially around math, that we need to double down on," Fraire said.

Students hear about the program through UTEP recruiters, the UTEP Prep program manager or counselors.

"We do a lot of active recruitment," Fraire said. "Especially during COVID, we knew there were a lot of high school seniors, some of them didn't want to go to summer school, they had had enough of virtual learning, so it was extra hard to get students motivated to come to UTEP for the summer, but we did have success for this particular course," Fraire said.

Through the university's Extender Program, students who don't complete their developmental education course at the end of the semester are offered a couple of extra weeks to finish their work. Typically, 100 students take advantage of this program in the fall, she said.

More:El Paso English Learners struggle to perform on STAAR tests more than counterparts

Jimena Aguayo, Instituto Tecnol—gico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad Ju‡rez graduate and current UTEP freshman majoring in neuroscience, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at UTEP in El Paso. Aguayo talked about acclimating to college life after graduating high school in 2020 in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

College-bound students longed for in-person learning

Based on results from a recent survey asking students to reflect on what they learned during the pandemic, Fraire said students want to be engaged.

Jimena Aguayo spent her last year and a half of high school learning remotely at Tec High School in Juárez. 

After finishing high school, she began crossing the U.S.-Mexico border each week in the fall to attend UTEP.

After spending many months learning from home, Aguayo, who is now a freshman in neuroscience, said she felt ready for a real college experience with face-to-face learning.

"I felt really excited," Aguayo said. "I just didn't feel motivated to learn throughout my high school experience because it was all online, so I just sat there and waited for it to be over."

Learning math became easier once Villalobos had a teacher in front of him at UTEP.

"I was taking math for my senior year in high school and they showed me a little bit but I don't think it really prepared me," Villalobos said. "Now I'm on track."

San Elizario High School senior Heather Rivera, who is learning in person now, hopes to study biology at the University of Arizona, said her tactic has been focusing on academics to prepare for college.

"This is the best year I've had so far academically," Rivera said. "I've known I have to do better, I have to do great for me to go to college and I'm doing great. I'm prepared for it." 

Rivera said she worries about going to a large, fully in-person college campus.

"Here, I can say we follow the protocols but what if it's different over there and I truly won't know unless I'm there, so I'm trying to prepare myself for the anxiety that may come with that," Rivera said.

San Elizario High School students get ready to leave campus after the school day ends Oct. 19, 2021.

Saldivar said some students who experienced hardships, virtual instruction and lockdowns because of the COVID-19 pandemic may experience challenges getting back on track academically, and may deal with fear in a different than other generations.

Most of her seniors returned to in-person learning after spring break, but Saldivar said many experienced anxiety, often because of isolation, which made helping them complete academic requirements to finish high school difficult.

"It really did hurt their ability to be able to connect with us," Saldivar said. "We were able to make it the end of the year, we crammed as much as we could into those nine weeks as far as activities, but it was still very difficult even face to face to get them to actually commit and get everything done that they needed to finish school."

Pat Villarreal, counselor at San Elizario High School on Oct. 19, 2021.

San Elizario High School school counselor Pat Villarreal had a positive message for high school seniors now preparing for college after pandemic lockdowns last year:

"We see the kids now and they're so happy to be here, even though sometimes high school is high school and you don't always want to go, so I hope they take this moment to really enjoy being with their counterparts because now we know that's not a given," Villarreal said.

Cristina Carreon may be reached at ccarreon@elpasotimes.com and @Cris_carreon90 on Twitter.