Pandemic setbacks loom as students move to college

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Hundreds of thousands of recent graduates are heading to college this fall after spending more than half their high school careers dealing with the upheaval of a pandemic.

They endured a jarring transition to online learning, the strains from teacher shortages and profound disruptions to their home lives. And many are believed to carry deep academic gaps.

One of those students is Angel Hope.

He graduated near the top of his high school class in Milwaukee, winning scholarships from prestigious colleges. But he didn’t feel ready for college.

Nearly a third of Hope’s high school career was spent at home, in virtual classes that were hard to follow and easy to brush aside. Some days he skipped school to work extra hours at his job. Some days he played games with his brother and sister. Other days he just stayed in bed.

Algebra got little of his attention, but his teachers kept giving him good grades amid a push for leniency.

“I kind of felt like it was optional,” he said. “I was more going to online school to pass, not really to learn. And I felt like that’s kind of like affected me, especially my senior year.”

That’s when they went back to in-person classes.

“That was like a baseball bat to my head or something,” he said. “They like expected us to be fully acclimated to how it was before

Education experts warn there could be a surge in students unprepared for the demands of college-level work. Research has found that starting a step behind can raise the risk of dropping out later, which carries myriad consequences ranging from students’ earnings to the health of the country’s workforce.

Hope recently finished a six week summer bridge program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He took a math class that covered the ground he missed in high school, and he’s signed up to take calculus in the fall.

He also revived basic study skills that went dormant in high school. He started studying at the library. He got used to the rhythms of school, with assignments every day and tests every other week. He rediscovered what it’s like to enjoy school.

Most importantly, he says it changed his mindset: Now he feels like he’s there to learn, not just to get by.

“To be honest I think if I didn’t take this program and I went straight into the fall, I would be moderately unprepared,” he said.