At the Brooklyn school that saw the sharpest drop in math scores in the city since 2019, classrooms are chronically overcrowded, 81% of students have experienced poverty and students recently had to pass through metal detectors before going to class.
Schools around the country are trying to recover from pandemic learning loss, which was documented in recently released test scores. Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights serves as an extreme example of how COVID-19 combined with other ongoing equity, safety and economic challenges to create a particularly difficult learning environment.
Parents and students at the Crown Heights school serving grades six through 12 point to remote instruction – and the resources needed for it – as the main factor causing the drop in math achievement. But concerns about school safety and other data on the school with 1,500 students points to other factors, as well.
Councilmember Rita Joseph, who also chairs the Council's education committee, said the test scores highlight how other entrenched problems were exacerbated by the pandemic.
"Learning loss during COVID for students is a very real and concerning phenomena," said Joseph, who represents parts of Brooklyn, in a statement. "Candidly, some communities were hit much harder than others by it. The (Department of Education) needs to use every tool at their disposal to mitigate it so that students are equipped to gain the academic and social skills they need."
Math proficiency fell more sharply at Medgar Evers than any other school in the city — by 49.9% over the last two years. In 2019, of 173 students tested in the state math assessment, about 81% were proficient. In 2022, that number fell to just 31%, with 158 students tested, city data show. Citywide, the percent of proficient students dropped by just 7.6 points.
The test scores released by the city in September cover the third through eighth grades, and the vast majority of math exam results at Medgar Evers were from sixth graders in 2019 and 2022. The number of students who took the exam in both years is comparable to other schools that saw a sharp drop in math proficiency.
The results were the first large-scale measure of third through eighth grade math and English Language Arts proficiency since the pandemic. In 2020 there was no exam, and only 21% of students took the test in 2021.
The sharp drop on state math exams mirrors trends on the NAEP exam, which is known as the nation’s report card. Only 18% of New York City fourth graders were proficient in math — the lowest level in almost 20 years — compared to 24% in 2019.
Kim Morgan, a parent of two students at Medgar Evers, said the switch to remote learning was a huge challenge for students.
“We are a predominantly Black school. Some, I should say a lot, of parents lost their jobs. And some students didn’t have internet. There was a lack of internet in their homes, a lack of devices,” said Morgan, a member of the school's PTA.
A July audit by the state comptroller’s office found that lower-income families were more likely to find themselves among the 16% of New York City residents without broadband internet at home.
She said problems with the city’s rollout of iPads and Chromebooks for remote learning didn’t help.
“So that’s another difficulty that could have caused these kids’ scores to drop. It’s not that math isn’t top of the mind, how could anyone really focus during that time? We were thrown into something that we didn’t know what it was,” Morgan added. “Even adults couldn’t think straight.”
Still, she credited the school principal, Dr. Michael Wiltshire and other administrators, saying they “move mountains.” She appreciated communication from school leadership who quickly alerted parents late last month after a student was arrested for bringing a gun into the building. The student told an administrator he’d brought the gun “for protection,” according to The New York Post. Wiltshire did not respond to an inquiry.
The incident was a reflection of a wider issue where students are fearful for their safety, said Mona Davids with the advocacy group School Safety Coalition.
“No child can learn in an unsafe environment. That is simply not possible. New York City students right now are afraid. Because of this justified fear that they have traveling to and from school, incidents that are happening around the schools, the rampant gun violence in our communities,” she said. “It’s a crisis.”
The metal detectors temporarily set up at school entrances following the incident hadn’t stopped some rowdiness.
“Like just today, during my lunch period, two fights broke out. That’s the same day they had metal detectors scanning children, and they’re still acting out,” said Tyson Primus, an 11th grader at the school.
Medgar Evers students who spoke to Gothamist were not surprised by the sharp drop in math scores among the new sixth graders, describing serious difficulty paying attention during remote learning.
“I would say procrastination. Especially online, it’s hard to stay focused,” said Linsey Rollins, a 12th grader planning to study cybersecurity in college.
Primus, who said math used to be his strongest subject, agreed.
“I think a lot of students didn’t do the work, because they just could get away with it. Math was a class I always had 90s in, but during the pandemic, I actually failed my math class. I was that lazy,” the 11th grader said.
Poverty at the majority Black school has increased in the pandemic. In the 2019-2020 school year, 76% of students experienced poverty. In 2021-2022 school year, that increased to 81% – about 1,176 kids, according to education department data.
The school was also flagged as the most overcrowded in the borough last year in a list published by the advocacy group Class Size Matters. Plans for a new building to help alleviate overcrowding were announced in 2020 – but the space won’t come online until 2025 at the earliest.
“This would no doubt contribute to terrible learning conditions, depriving their students of a real chance to succeed,” wrote Leonie Haimson, director of Class Size Matters.
The education department said in a statement that it is taking several steps to improve academic success at the school.
“School leaders at Medgar Evers College Prep, including the principal and district superintendent, are putting in place interventions including after school tutoring, encouraging independent practice at home, peer tutoring, full day summer programming, and Saturday Academy to bolster support for struggling students,” the statement read.