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For Madison Calvillo, getting through eighth grade during a pandemic showed her just how important school is to her future.

The now-former Matthey Middle School student didn’t think she was going to pass the eighth grade. Like many students, she struggled immensely with virtual instruction, easily growing distracted while spending hours on a computer with little human interaction. Madison and other students on San Antonio’s South Side had no choice but to learn remotely for the first nine weeks of school, a decision several school districts made to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

In the fall, Madison will head to Southside High School, after scoring so well on the eighth grade math standardized test that her teacher, Israel Del Valle, gave her a $25 cash prize.

There is no question that students lost academic ground in the past 14 months, since Texas campuses closed after spring break last year and pivoted to remote-only instruction, Del Valle said.

“Everybody went through the same year and a half of not getting that one-on-one teacher interaction,” he said. Considering the circumstances, “those that actually took part in this year’s [instruction] … even if they were here every day and didn’t miss any, it was not the same.”

While Principal Miguel Martell is optimistic about the progress students made during the pandemic, he said learning loss is a real problem that’s going to be with students and teachers for the next few years.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Martell said.

Del Valle had offered his eighth grade math students $1,000 if they made a perfect score on the standardized math test, part of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). While no one scored perfectly on the exam, three students missed only a handful of questions, earning the equivalent of an A, and 26, including Madison, made a C or B. Del Valle handed out $1,275 to the 29 students who made passing grades.

(From left) Sophia Sanchez, Emily Martin, Leeana Sanchez, and Madison Calvillo talk about how their math teacher, Israel Del Valle, helped them perform well on the math STAAR. The four were among 29 students who received rewards from Del Valle for their high scores. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Madison said she was surprised she did so well on the exam because she felt “stuck” learning remotely, but Del Valle and his co-teacher, Amanda Wilson, made up for lost time when she returned to the classroom in October. Now, she feels prepared for ninth grade.

“I’m not going to play around next year,” she said. “I want to go to college and study to become a pediatrician.”

The 29 who received a passing grade on the math STAAR represented about 27% of the 107 Matthey Middle School eighth graders who took it. In 2019, the last time the STAAR was administered, 60% passed the math exam, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. Martell said not all exams have been graded, so those numbers could change.

About 91% of eighth graders took the STAAR, with some students coming to campus later to take the exam. The goal was to reach 95% student participation so the school would have data on what students need help with the most in the coming years.

“There is significant learning loss, but it’s across the board,” Martell said. “It doesn’t just affect a certain group of students.”

About 86% of Matthey students are considered economically disadvantaged, compared with 60% of all Texas students, according to the TEA. More than 24% of Matthey students are English language learners, and roughly 14% receive special education services. Statewide, about 20% of students are English language learners and 10.5% receive special education services.

Del Valle, Southside ISD’s 2021 teacher of the year, teaches many English language learners and special education students. He said their progress after coming back to school in person was a testament to the curriculum writing, use of data, and interaction with students that kept them engaged. He and Wilson often joked with each other in the classroom, using accents and props so students would pay attention.

“That amount of growth in that short amount of time was pretty phenomenal,” Del Valle said. “It’s hard enough to do that in a normal year with the demographics of students that we have. Getting them to be at that level, I was kind of shocked.”

The small in-person classes, increased emphasis on tutoring, and the extra two weeks schools had before the STAAR this year helped bridge the learning gaps created by months of virtual instruction, Del Valle said. He believes that more students would have performed better on the standardized exam if they had come to school in person, but the school remained at about 60% of students learning in person this spring.

Additionally, Del Valle said staggering lessons so he could teach “bite-size” concepts each week and test students on them every Friday to gauge their progress allowed students to grasp the material and digest it before taking the STAAR. The weekly test scores informed what he would teach and whether he sent a student to tutoring.

After the STAAR, a few students came up to Del Valle and told him they thought they had missed a few questions on the exam. Martell said that is the “beauty of teaching” when students recognize their own problem areas because that means they are thinking at a higher level. The fact that Del Valle got students to that point this school year showed his prowess as an educator, even though he had to cover another teacher’s class for almost two weeks and had to quarantine twice after potential exposure to COVID-19.

“I don’t think there’s an educator in Texas that can tell you, ‘Oh, this was an easy year,'” Martell said. “We all struggled, flipping from face-to-face to virtual to hybrid, bringing kids back in waves, bringing in our most at-risk students first and prioritizing their needs.”

Sophie Sanchez, who was in Del Valle’s class, noticed how her teacher would stop and help students who were struggling. She said she liked that Del Valle invested money in his students and rewarded classes that did the best on the weekly quizzes with parties, giving them a sense of accomplishment after all their hard work. Sophie was one of three students who made an A on the math STAAR and earned $100.

“It was like having another friend,” she said.

Del Valle said it was difficult to hear what students were going through at home this past school year. Students came to school when their dads were in the hospital, after their grandparents died, and when their siblings were laid off from work. Somehow, they still managed to learn.

“The fact that everybody didn’t quit, that’s a testament to our students,” he said. “I want to push our kids, but knowing what was going on at home, there was a lot of love in what we were teaching, understanding that this may not be a good day for them.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.