'There’s always a barrier': One district’s response to student struggles

A woman holding a blue folder speaks through a screen door.
Northfield Public Schools family engagement specialist Jennyffer Barrientos speaks with parents of a student while dropping off food from the local food shelf in Northfield, Minn., on Dec. 22, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Jennyffer Barrientos doesn’t always know what to expect when she answers her phone. It might be another Northfield parent telling her they lost their job. It might be someone with a question about how to navigate their kid’s online school platform. It might be a teacher, worried about their student. 

“My week typically starts out empty. Monday rolls around, my schedule is pretty flexible, very open and by Tuesday it’s filled up,” Barrientos said. “We are out in the neighborhoods, we are listening to barriers, we are listening to concerns that people have and we serve like that bridge to connect them to resources or connect them to the schools.”

Barrientos works as one of two family engagement specialists with Northfield Public Schools. It’s a new position designed to address challenges brought about because of the pandemic, created by Barrientos and the district this year in partnership with Barrientos’ nonprofit, Growing Up Healthy.

Data from the first quarter of the academic year is starting to reveal the effects shutdowns and massive changes in schools due to the pandemic are having on Minnesota students. 

The state’s second largest district, St. Paul Public Schools, reports the number of failing grades has doubled there this year. Approximately 900 high school students are expected to need credit recovery. Other districts around the country report similar dismaying statistics.

The Northfield district is no exception. The number of students failing their courses has doubled for almost all student groups. But students of color — who make up over 20 percent of the student body — as well as students who were already struggling, have been hit the hardest. 

In the first quarter, when the district’s middle and high schools were in hybrid learning, grades for Black and Latino students saw steep drops. One third of Latino students got Ds or Fs this year, compared to only 17 percent the previous year. And nearly a fourth of its black students received Ds or Fs this year compared to 15 percent the previous year. That stands in stark contrast to the district’s white students whose failing grades also doubled this year, but still affect only about 10 percent of that student population.  

“Our at-risk kids are truly at risk and are struggling in all of their course work,” said Hope Langston, Northfield’s director of instructional services. “The effect is magnified. So instead of failing maybe two courses last year, they’re failing all five.” 

The stories behind some of these grim statistics are ones that Barrientos has made it her job to understand. She gets a list of students from teachers and school administration; kids who aren’t turning up to class or are falling behind in their work. There’s always a reason why things aren’t going well.

“(If) a family is not engaging, it’s not because they don’t want to,” Barrientos said. “It’s because they’re trying to make a living, so they’re at work. It’s because — I’ve said it a lot — the language, not knowing how to navigate the platforms … It’s because they literally can’t (engage).”

Some of the families on her list don’t have reliable internet access. Sometimes they can't respond to school calls or oversee their kids’ lessons because they’re at work. Some of the students she’s in touch with are taking care of their siblings during school hours.

Northfield’s student body is over 78 percent white, about 14 percent Latino, and close to 3 percent Black. Barrientos spends the majority of her time in neighborhoods on the north side of Northfield, mostly with Latino students whose family members work at nearby factories.

She is bilingual and has four children of her own attending classes at Northfield’s elementary, middle and high schools. She’s had to work through the flurry of email announcements from the district and navigate a labyrinth of unfamiliar online platforms. It’s all experience she said she can use to help her neighbors figure out the same systems. 

“One of the main reasons we are able to do what we do is because we have taken the time to build those relationships, to meet people where they are, go into their neighborhoods. We are very understanding, we don’t judge. We help, we are always looking for new resources,” Barrientos said. “We walk alongside the families.” 

A woman sorts food in the back of an SUV.
Jennyffer Barrientos sorts through donated food in the back of her car before delivering it to families in the Northfield Public Schools system who could be in need.
Evan Frost | MPR News

She helps parents figure out class schedules and checks up on students, reminding them to finish their homework and turn it in. She delivers bags of food, toys and craft supplies for families cooped up at home. Sometimes she drives in person to make sure students and families without a cell phone know where they can get school supplies, and what’s happening with the ever-shifting pattern of school closures and re-openings.

And that’s just the work she does to address education concerns. Families tell her about losing their jobs, not being able to make rent or put food on the table because they’re home quarantining and not getting paid sick time. They share their concerns about getting COVID-19 when they don’t have health insurance.

It’s not just relaying messages to parents, either. She also takes their needs to the district and other community organizations and helps figure out changes like better communication. She and her colleagues have been instrumental in helping the district prioritize the immediate translation of school announcements into Spanish so that families can get information in their language as soon as it’s available. She also helped the district design video tutorials in Spanish to explain new school platforms, and delivered fliers in English and Spanish to families. 

District leaders said they have come to rely on the work that Barrientos and her colleagues are doing.

“(They) help us get those kids engaged — not just attending where they’re showing up in a Zoom, but actually doing their school work,” Langston said. 

She said Northfield and Minnesota will continue to pay a steep price if they can’t get things right for the students most adversely affected by systemic inequalities. 

“What’s at stake here (is) great minds, different perspectives, giving these kids a future that they deserve and giving not only the kids but the families a chance,” Barrientos said.

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