DES MOINES, Iowa — Jose Flores, 8, comes back home from a full day of school just in time to head inside, and get to work. As a third grader in the Des Moines Public School District, he’s got some catching up to do.

“We’re not at the goal yet, he’s still meeting second-grade goals,” his mother Mireya Flores said. “It comes back to he puts himself down so he puts himself back from meeting his goal where he should but it’s progression. He started at kindergarten level when he started.”

As in, when he started going full-time this year. When the pandemic hit two years ago, Jose went on spring break and like the rest of the kids in Iowa, didn’t go back as school went 100% online. Virtual learning at the Flores home, where English isn’t everyone’s first language, was a daily struggle.

“We both work full time so he stays with my mom. She’s not technology savvy at all so to get him logged on in the morning before I went to work was fine, but when they went to break and had to log back in the afternoon, he didn’t know how to log in, my mom didn’t know how to log in, so he just missed half a day of school,” Flores said.

Now, as a third grader behind in subjects like reading and math, he’s lost some interest.

“I get the answer wrong but it’s okay because it doesn’t matter,” Jose said.

That’s not sitting well with his mom and dad.

“I don’t want to see him struggle,” Flores said with tears in her eyes. “I just want the best for him. I want to make life easy but I know I can’t and when he puts himself down it’s just like what can I do to make it better for him and not make him feel like that is the hard part.”

The Iowa Department of Education released data in October comparing proficiency in all subjects. In 2019, before the pandemic, Iowa students were rated at 67.3% proficient, while DMPS students scored 46.5%. The most recent report from 2021-22 shows statewide, students maintained proficiency in reading, as DMPS students grew to 49.5%. But, in math, both the statewide and DMPS scores fell, roughly five percentage points statewide and six percentage points for DMPS students.

“There is definitely some opportunity to improve this data and the team and I have been working on that,” DMPS interim superintendent Matt Smith said during a school board meeting on November 1st.

Of the 55 DMPS schools surveyed by the Iowa Department of Education, 29 schools were identified as performing under what the department considers acceptable.

“The pandemic impacted Des Moines Public schools and students like everybody else. Our students felt it, our families felt it, our staff felt it. We use a phrase here that we can’t intervene our way out of achievement gaps, we have to close those achievement gaps daily with our students. We do offer those daily supports and progress monitoring for students who are not meeting those cut scores on a daily basis,” Smith said. 

Jose is involved with small group work every day.

“He goes with a teacher and a couple other kids each day. They do small work activity,” Flores said.

But it hasn’t been enough to close the gap. So, they’ve turned to outside help, and are paying out of pocket for it.

“His main focus is reading. They’re trying get him back up to his reading level which is third grade,” Flores said.

The Flores family is not alone.

Across town on the west side, Suszy Mataloni has found her second calling, after the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown sent the elementary teacher home early during her final year of teaching.

“It was not the way you want to retire after 32 years but it was a card we were dealt and just like everybody we made it work,” Mataloni said.

She didn’t stay retired long. Parents in her neighborhood reached out with concerns over how their kids were doing at school. So far, she’s tutored 23 students. 

Her basement entertainment area now doubles as a classroom. Instead of libations behind the bar, a cart holds lesson plans for each student’s individual needs.

“Every grade level is important. Especially with reading and math and writing it’s all foundational so each year it builds and builds. So, if they don’t have certain math concepts or if they don’t have control over the sort ‘E’ or short vowel sounds, that’s going to have an impact on their reading, their writing, and what they can do in math,” Mataloni said.

For those who struggle, their confidence tends to suffer, which can have a direct impact on the desire to keep trying, Maloni said.

“Some people don’t have a sense of urgency. I’ve always had a sense of urgency before even the pandemic. What can parents do? Value education. Portray that to their child.”

Smith said the district is currently focused on reading proficiency initiatives for kindergarten through third-grade students.

“One hundred percent. One hundred percent there’s a sense of urgency for every child whether they’re behind academically or ahead academically. Every student, every day is our motto. Every student, every day, everything it takes,” Smith said.

So far urgency hasn’t been lost with the Flores family.

“I hope to get him to graduate high school and get him where he needs to be, get him his education goals and make school easier and fun for him,” Flores said.

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