By her own admission, junior Stephanie Northrup has never really enjoyed going to school.
Frequently a target of bullies, and shy by nature, Northrup would never raise her hand in class, opting to struggle on her own rather than draw attention to herself, she said.
Switching to online education through Clear Lake, Northrup's struggles were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to drive to South Dakota every other weekend to visit her parents. This year, she found her goal of graduating early in December 2021 jeopardized by her grades.
Northrup is not alone. As students who spent months learning online last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic return to more traditional classroom settings, they are finding themselves behind in meeting the standards that would allow them to be successful in their next grade.
Whether it was from technological difficulties, a lack of consistency from the student or educators unaccustomed to online teaching, the pandemic negatively impacted students for nearly a year.
As students convened for in-person school in Clear Lake this fall, the gap became apparent in students' grades. One of the solutions promoted by Clear Lake High School Principal Chris Murphy was a "night school," where students could come after school and spend a couple of hours in a smaller student-to-teacher ratio setting and study.
The district committed some of its CARES Act money to the cause and four teachers, including special education teacher Sean Halverson, signed up to help.
"Night School" runs from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. two nights a week and is entirely voluntary. Halverson said teachers reach out to students who appear to need the help with the suggestion they attend. If the student doesn't show, a call is put in to the student's parents. The district also arranges for transportation as necessary, but quite a few of the students simply stay after the end of the school day at 3:15 p.m. That way, they can talk with teachers as needed for additional coaching before heading to night school at 4.
Superintendent Doug Gee touted the program in a recent school board meeting, noting that students' grades were climbing.
"They're doing some amazing things there," he said.
Between 18-22 students attend each session, Halverson said. While he believes that the pandemic certainly impacted students' learning, he thinks it impacted their mindsets toward learning more.
"They went from having 2 weeks break around the holidays each year to months off," he said. "And then we all faced a bunch of unknowns. Would we go back to school? Go online?"
Halverson said he estimated about 60 percent of the students in night school wouldn't be there in a "normal" year.
Night school began shortly after spring break and will continue through next week. For those who need it, it will roll over to summer school.
Halverson said he's seen success with the program. He said he has one student who was failing all their classes but is now earning passing grades in three of them.
"The key is to see if that success can be maintained," Halverson said. The goal is not for night school to be another study hall, but rather an all-around learning experience that teaches kids how to learn better on their own. The focus is at least as much on developing skills as it is completing lessons.
"This just gives us more time to focus," said Northrup, who hopes to get a job one day working with the horses she loves. "It's easier to do, working 1-on-1 instead of in a room full of people."