UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

No Child Left Behind? An Interview with an Educator

By Katie Ng Ross, UNA-NCA Senior Advocacy Fellow

Maryland educator Keishia Thorpe of the International High School at Langley Park describes herself as the type of person who “makes lemonade out of lemons.” On top of the difficulties that the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted around the world, Ms. Thorpe had to adjust to teaching in a digital space, all while the pandemic threw her population of English Language learning students into a whirlwind of financial, physical, and emotional insecurity.

While the pandemic forced millions of Americans to contend with equity, access, and security in their communities , these issues were particularly important in Ms. Thorpe’s classroom, made up predominantly of students of color. The International School at Langley Park serves grades 9 through 12, with 96% of the student body identifying as non-white and 87% of the student body identifying as Hispanic. With health equity as a major point of contention, Ms. Thorpe’s students confronted the additional impacts COVID-19 brought upon POC communities such as access to healthcare and income gaps.

As a community liaison and a member of the school’s steering committee, Ms. Thorpe conducted a needs assessment by surveying her students, learning that a key issue for them was their ability to access food. According to Feeding America, the child food insecurity rate increased by 36 percent from 2019 to 2020 in Prince George’s County, where Ms. Thorpe’s school is located. In total, the projected 2020 food insecurity rate for children in Prince George’s County, MD is 19.7 percent. Since students are unable to receive meals at school due to closures, Ms. Thorpe took it upon herself to develop an initiative called Food 4 Change in collaboration with Mayor Takisha James. Ms. Thorpe described the program:

“Every Thursday, the mayor would set aside a certain number of boxes for me. And so right after school, I get in my car, and I take them [to student’s homes]. And the students who are further away from school, I have partnered with another community organization that gives me food on Saturdays. So I pretty much spend all my Saturdays going to pick up food and dropping off for those students who live further out from the school community.”

Unfortunately, food insecurity affects children and teens both in and out of the classroom, leading to delays in cognitive, physical, and emotional development in addition to a greater likelihood of missing school and greater difficulty getting along with other students. In addition to the lack of food access her students were experiencing, Ms. Thorpe noted that because “our kids come from disadvantaged, marginal communities…we have a lot of them who actually did not have internet access,” which became a debilitating issue as the classroom switched to an entirely online format. Despite the integration of technology in the classroom prior to the pandemic, “when [teachers] are asking them to access things on Google Classroom, they can’t access that because they have no internet at home, even though they have a computer.” Additionally, Ms.Thorpe teaches students from undocumented or mixed-status families, in which the family includes people with different citizenship or immigration statuses. When the pandemic first began in March 2020, Ms. Thorpe noted that “so many students were struggling” because they became disclocated when their parents, some of whom were undocumented, lost their jobs.. Some of her students had temporary permits allowing them to legally work while their parents could not. This policy, unfortunately, resulted in major reductions in students’ ability to meet the school’s and Ms. Thorpe’s number one priority: attendance. Thorpe said, “A lot of these students, even though they’re undocumented, they also have temporary permits. So now, they have to become the breadwinner, because in this space, they are technically legal to work. So they had to go out and find those jobs. And so because of that, honestly, our attendance was shot.” With many students already unable to access classes due to internet restrictions, the choice between working and school became particularly daunting, resulting in the poor attendance and low participation that plagued International High School at Langley Park.

Teaching from a “social justice perspective,” Ms. Thorpe and her fellow teaching staff sought to create solutions for students during the pandemic experiencing the consequences of racial, social, and economic inequity. Ms. Thorpe ensured that student’s backgrounds were taken into consideration when striving to create an equitable classroom and overall learning experience. The school implemented a no homework policy to support students struggling to balance work and school.“We developed this no homework policy because of our student population. And we knew that a lot of them did not have time to get work done. Because after school, they’re going to work. And we already had poor attendance. And we’re saying, if we want to improve attendance, let’s not give them homework, because if they know they’re going to have homework, then they’re not going to come, they’re going to feel overwhelmed.” Even though the policy did not drastically improve attendance, “it was really passed to allow more flexibility for students who were already struggling with additional responsibilities at home, like taking care of siblings and those experiencing financial hardships and had to work as a result… It helped more students who were already attending to improve their grades and additional time to complete past-due work for mandatory projects they needed to complete to pass core courses for graduation. In that respect, it proved beneficial.”

Ms. Thorpe additionally made efforts to make her lessons available asynchronously so that her students could still complete classwork even if they were unable to attend her English class. These accommodations, however, were in no way indicative of a lower standard for students to achieve. Ms. Thorpe emphasized that “if I’m the teacher I want for my child, there’s no reason for me to expect less from your child, because I’m going to treat your child as if they’re mine.” While the COVID-19 pandemic challenged educators and students physically, emotionally, and mentally, it is clear that the determination and investment in student success was never compromised in Ms. Thorpe’s classroom.

Despite the hardships that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to bear for both Ms. Thorpe and her students, Ms. Thorpe took them as an opportunity to expand her knowledge as an educator and her classroom as a global environment. While Ms. Thorpe noted the difficulties that came with engaging students with the outside experiences such as field trips, Ms. Thorpe found that the virtual space enabled her to take her students around the world digitally without the limitations prior to the pandemic, such as money, busses, and distance. Expounding upon the “growth mindset” she embraces, Ms. Thorpe has developed a new academic reality for her and her students.

It is clear that we as global citizens and advocates can learn from the mindset and leadership Ms. Thorpe has modeled this past year and a half. Ms.Thorpe embodies resilience in the face of adversity, fighting to make her classroom and the world around her a more equitable and just place while improving the lives of herself and others. As we continue to live through the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with the rise of the Delta variant, we can expand on Ms. Thorpe’s work by prioritizing education, equity, and safety above all. Learning the needs of our community is an essential part of creating a safe, healthy, and supportive environment for educators and students alike. Calling upon local school boards and governments to ensure that students and educators in our communities are provided with the necessary tools to keep themselves and others safe is one important way for regular citizens to support the work of educators like Ms. Thorpe and the students she teaches. Whether by donating school supplies or food, contacting local government legislators, or simply wearing a mask to keep those around us safe, community and relationship building is an essential part of finding solutions to create the safe and equitable learning environment educators and children deserve at all times, especially in a global pandemic.



UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to communications@unanca.org.

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