Even remotely, Pace teachers and counselors work to get troubled girls back on track

Coronavirus pandemic throws up new obstacles for schools trying to turn around the lives of girls struggling with behavioral issues like truancy and delinquency.
Reading teacher Bee Dagher, left, uses video-conferencing to work with Matdison, a student at Pace Center for Girls.
Reading teacher Bee Dagher, left, uses video-conferencing to work with Matdison, a student at Pace Center for Girls. [ PACE Center for Girls ]
Published May 26, 2020|Updated May 26, 2020

TAMPA — Before the pandemic, Don Lott liked to walk around his classroom and check over his students’ shoulders to see how they were doing with that day’s assignment.

Lott teaches English and vocational skills at the Pace Center for Girls in Hillsborough County. The school serves students who have behavioral issues, previous arrests, and who have experienced other trauma.

Now, class is conducted through video-conferencing software, and it’s not so easy to see who is struggling. He lets the girls know he will stay online for questions after class. Girls also can send private chat messages to him during the class if they are too embarrassed to ask questions in front of the group.

Teaching remotely is challenging enough. But for teachers at Pace, the closure of schools caused by the pandemic has thrown up a whole new set of problems.

Pace runs 21 schools across Florida, serving about 2,300 middle and high school girls referred to the program because of issues like delinquency, truancy and frequently running away from home. Many lived in homes with no computers and sometimes no internet. The girls’ troubled backgrounds often means teachers are dealing with students who read at different grade levels and need plenty of individual attention.

The economic fallout from the pandemic has been a challenge, too. Many Pace students come from low-incomes families hit by job losses or reduced working hours. That has meant the nonprofit needed to help the families of their students with basic needs like groceries, hygiene and cleaning products, and access to clothes washers and dryers.

Some families needed help with utility bills and did not have computers their children could use to attend online classes.

“It’s been a lot of work; it’s been a big lift,” said Pace president and CEO Mary Marx. “We ended up deploying a lot of equipment to be able to support them.”

And while K-12 teachers will get a break from online teaching with the school year ending in two weeks across most of Florida, Pace is an all-year program. Virtual classes will continue throughout the summer, Marx said.

Related: PACE Center for Girls a go in Hernando County

It’s not just the schools’ teachers who have had to adapt to stay-at-home orders. Counselors who work with the girls and provide therapy have had to switch to virtual meetings in most cases.

The fear for schools was that they would lose touch with girls or struggle to keep them engaged in their classes. Through online classes, texts and emails, staffers are interacting with girls an average of seven times a week.

“We had all of our girls’ cell phone numbers, all of the parents’ cell phones and followed all their social media,” Marx said. “We keep an eye on what they’re doing when they’re not at Pace.”

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Around 21 percent of girls entering Pace schools have a previous arrest. Statewide, about 8,600 girls were referred to Florida’s juvenile justice system in 2019, about 30 percent of its overall population.

But that number could drop as a result of stay-at-home orders.

A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that the number of young people in juvenile detention centers across the United States fell by 24 percent in March. The survey looked at data from about one tenth of the nation’s counties, including some in Florida.

Even so, Pace still has welcomed new students during the pandemic, Marx said.

Lott, the English teacher, has been with Pace since 2016. He said that even with the switch to distance learning, he sees girls making the same progress he used to witness in the classroom.

“You can begin to see the light in the eyes of the girls,” he said. “You can see her get that ‘aha’ moment.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.

SO YOU WANT TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE? Read these 10 tips first

DID YOU TEST POSITIVE FOR CORONAVIRUS? A Tampa Bay Times reporter would like to talk to you.

WHAT’S OPEN?: This list includes local establishments doing business in various ways.

LOCAL RESTAURANTS: The updated database of Tampa Bay restaurants open for dine-in or takeout

UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits

LISTEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS PODCAST: New episodes every week, including interviews with experts and reporters

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.