A university counselor for 500 high school students. Lack of communication between school leaders and teachers. And inadequate mental health support.
These are some of the issues that have made it difficult for high school students to make it to college during the pandemic.
High school graduates across the United States have lost interest in pursuing higher education. The likelihood of high school graduates pursuing a four-year degree has risen from 71% to 51% over the past two years, according to a report released earlier this year by the nonprofit group ECMC. Increased stress and anxiety among students has led to a strong aversion to being in class and is one possible reason for the rise in chronic absenteeism in New York public schools.
Some students who struggled with stress and anxiety this year ended up having difficulty completing the courses they needed to graduate.
After two years of transitioning from remote to in-person learning, some New York students are calling on schools to develop better structures, better communication and better support for their senior graduates heading into teaching superior.
As the class of 2023 prepares for its senior year, here’s what three alumni say schools can do differently.
Milena Vilez, freshman at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Manhattan
Milena Vilez grew up in Ecuador until she was nine years old when she moved to the United States. Vilez said she has better access to educational resources and opportunities in the United States than in Ecuador. But she hadn’t anticipated how difficult her senior year would be.
The college application process at her school was like a “roller coaster,” said Vilez, a 2021 graduate of Aviation Career and Technical High School in Queens.
“I was lost in the whole process and had to ask for help,” she said.
His school had a graduating class of 500 seniors, but only one college counselor to turn to for help. Vilez joined hour-long Zoom meetings with the counselor — along with hundreds of other students who also had questions. So there was no guarantee that his questions would be answered.
At home, she helped her parents take care of her younger brother who was struggling with his online classes. She also cooked for her family while taking her virtual classes. Being on the computer most of the day with no social interaction or physical activity made it “more difficult to de-stress,” Vilez said.
She said she would have benefited from mental health resources, but they were not provided to students until the end of the year and information about services was not shared except on request.
A group outside the school gave him crucial help in deciding on his orientation towards higher education. Vilez was able to nurture his passion for studying political science through YVote, a youth organization that aims to inspire young voters to become civically educated and engaged.
A key tip from Vilez to high schools: make sure every student can rely on and access the school’s middle school resources, and provide mental health resources to students early and often.
Lucas Rosenberg, freshman at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Manhattan
As a senior last year at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, Rosenberg had a very “chaotic” experience.
After being online every day for the past few years, Rosenberg began having painful and frequent migraines that led him to seek help from a neurologist.
“I was so isolated and lonely during the pandemic,” Rosenberg said. “My health was definitely at an all-time low.”
Rosenberg felt comfortable applying to colleges because he said it was similar to the college application process. Without that experience, he would have had to face more challenges, he said. However, being a senior was very difficult.
School administrators put a lot of pressure on teachers who then passed it on to students, Rosenberg said. And teachers’ attention was split between those who were excited to return to the classroom and those who wanted to continue learning online, even when in person.
“No one knew what was going on, what next week would be like, who to contact for help…just uncontrolled chaos all the time,” Rosenberg said. “If you went to the Dean to talk about it, he would just say, ‘I don’t know. That’s what their class is. I seem to hear that from everyone: ‘I don’t know, just find something.’
At the same time, “the administration was panicking because grades were low and attendance was low. Suddenly fewer people were graduating [as] were meant to be,” Rosenberg said.
Teachers expressed aggression and frustration with students who were not doing well, instead of having sympathy for struggling students, Rosenberg said. Although he graduated on time, it was discouraging for him to see this lack of care and empathy.
Rosenberg’s key advice to high schools: Communicate with teachers so they can better help their students, and keep things organized so teachers and students don’t feel lost.
Binyu Wang, freshman at Baruch College, Manhattan
Most of what Binyu Wang learned about the college application process came from his own research and conversations with friends.
Like Vilez, getting involved with an outside organization helped Wang navigate last year’s college application process more than his teachers and guidance counselors.
Some English teachers offered to edit students’ personal essays, but ended up “too busy” with their overwhelming classroom workload to actually help, Wang said. And she struggled to get help with other parts of her college application at school. So Wang looked for help outside of her school.
She joined Bottom Line NYC, an organization dedicated to helping high school students from disadvantaged communities earn a college degree, for help with her personal statement and college application.
A key tip Wang has for high schools: embed teachers’ discussions of college resources with students throughout the school year.
“I expected our regular teachers to give us more support,” Wang said. “I felt like they should have talked about it more because one of my teachers talked about loan repayments and all that, but it was just one teacher.”
Elena Johnson is Chalkbeat’s Community Engagement and Listening Intern for 2022.