Nearly 22% of Chatham County Schools students received a grade of D or F in a class during the first two grading periods of the current semester — a 73.96% increase from last year’s 12.56% …
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Nearly 22% of Chatham County Schools students received a grade of D or F in a class during the first two grading periods of the current semester — a 73.96% increase from last year’s 12.56% districtwide failure/at-risk rate, according to data released by the district’s central office.
During a semester marked by pandemic adaptations and remote learning challenges, the district shared at December’s Board of Education meeting that the failure/at-risk rate, defined as having a D or F in any subject, ranged from as little as 2% to a whopping 49% among the district’s schools. At that meeting, the district said the failure rate was up 9.29% — a number the News + Record previously reported — but the rate actually increased by 9.29 percentage points.
“What we’re seeing in the data, it really can depend upon a couple of things,” Amanda Hartness, the CCS assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support, told CCS BOE members in December. “One, our more rural areas seem to have the higher failure rate differences. That could be as a result of connectivity lag or issues with students having to be able to get the video from our teachers — many of our students in our rural areas are on (paper-only) packets, so they’re not getting that direct connection with their teachers, or not as much.”
Hartness also said schools that have higher at-risk numbers or are lower socioeconomic schools also are showing higher differences. At that meeting, Hartness said the district didn't have statewide data to know where it compared to other N.C. districts, but many state education leaders have warned that more students are failing classes this year. In neighboring Wake County Schools, about 25% of middle school and high school students failed at least one class during the first quarter of the school year, the Raleigh News & Observer reported, up from 15% the prior year.
Hartness emphasized that the failure/at-risk rates Chatham County Schools released include grades of a D or F, even though a D is not a failing grade. The district chose to track more than just failing grades in order to better support a larger number of struggling students, she said.
“We fully understand that remote learning is not ideal and can never replace the day-to-day interaction between teachers and students,” Hartness told the News + Record. “With that said, our schools are working tirelessly to support students during the pandemic by providing meals, mental-health services, hotspot devices, laptops, a variety of instructional pathway options for families to choose from, as well as a variety of supports for students who may be struggling.”
Diana Ciro, the only English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Silk Hope School, a K-8 school located in Siler City, told the News + Record in November that remote learning — even under the hybrid model — has been challenging for her students. Last semester, she taught ESL to 23 Hispanic students between the 1st and 8th grades, some of whom are also EC students.
“It’s definitely very hard, very challenging,” Ciro told the News + Record at the time. “It has proven awful for the kids because they’re falling behind, most of them. The lack of contact and socialization — it’s been awful. We cannot hide that. That’s the reality.”
An ESL teacher at Jordan-Matthews High School, Wendi Pillars, also said remote learning made engaging her students more challenging.
“We’ve lost a handful of students due to full-time work,” she said. “Some of them have moved. Some of them are just MIA. We don’t know where they are.”
Across all of the district’s high schools there’s also been an increased failure at-risk rate, Hartness said, which she said spoke to the challenge of keeping students engaged as remote learning continues. These rates are subject to change, the district said, as schools work with students to receive course credit by accepting late assignments.
High school students in the district — with the exception of Extended Content Standard E.C. students — have been learning remotely since last March, when Gov. Roy Cooper first closed North Carolina public schools to help slow the spread of COVID-19. On Sept. 23, the BOE voted to continue Plan C through the semester, which ends Jan. 15. Less than a week later, the board pivoted, deciding to send some students back to hybrid in-person learning on Oct. 19, later deciding to send more students back on Nov. 19 and Dec. 7.
The board maintained that high school students would return to in-person learning on Jan. 21, the start of the second semester, until Monday, when the board unanimously voted to delay the start of in-person learning for high school students under Plan B to Feb. 1, a little more than one week after they were originally scheduled to return. High school staff will still return to in-person work on the 21st.
CCS public relations coordinator John McCann said staff and families report that engagement is the biggest barrier to learning right now, particularly as the semester and remote learning continue. Even with the younger students who returned to in-person learning in October, the hybrid learning model still requires some form of remote learning a few days each week. And at high schools, the increase in Ds and Fs was higher during the second reporting period, with a percentage of 38.22%.
Still, McCann said students had various support options, which vary based on their grade level: teacher office hours, tutoring groups, extensions and credit recovery opportunities, a 24-hour homework support line with Princeton Review in English and Spanish, social-emotional check-ins with teachers, guidance counselors and administrations and more.
Hartness said the district was particularly proud to provide the 24-hour homework support line.
“That’s just one example of the many new platforms and resources we implemented to support our students who may be struggling during remote learning,” she told the News + Record. “We are proud of the hard work of our families, students and staff during this unprecedented time in education.”
At the board of education’s last several public input comments, some parents raised concerns with the district’s Virtual Academy option, which allows families to remain on a fully remote-learning track, regardless of the board’s future decisions for learning plans.
While some parents report in-person learning has increased their children’s school success, others report difficulty helping their students learn and focus on remote days — particularly now that their teachers are working with other students in-person while they are virtual.
At Monday’s BOE retreat, the district said 77.74% of CCS families have chosen face-to-face instruction, while 22.26% opted for the fully remote Virtual Academy track. Among high school students, there’s been a 7% increase of students choosing Virtual Academy since December, the district said. Feb. 3 is the final deadline to change paths, 10 days after the semester virtually begins on Jan. 21.
Emily Harrison, the parent of two students at Pittsboro Elementary, told the News + Record in December that she hoped to see the board and district commit more resources to improving the remote learning experience.
“This morning, I keep thinking about all the kids who are failing right now,” Harrison said the morning after the BOE’s December meeting. “What that would feel like and how frustrating that would be. The board thinks the answer is to get the kids into the classroom through Plan B. But that answer isn’t right for every family. And, with hybrid learning, the majority of the week is still remote learning ... students who are struggling right now are some of those suffering the most during this pandemic. They deserve more attention and conversation from our leaders than whether or not certain sports should be played on school grounds.”
The board’s discussion regarding the learning plan under COVID-19 has continually emphasized the students struggling under remote learning, particularly those without reliable internet access. At the board’s Sept. 23 meeting, Chairperson Gary Leonard addressed this concern; he was the only board member to vote against continuing Plan C through the semester at that meeting.
“I do value our staff tremendously,” Leonard said at the time. “But we left out students that are at home with not a whole lot of internet access — a lot of frustrations from some. We have heard from others that are doing well with this, so just want to make sure that we think about how we’re doing that.”
To learn more about supports for Chatham County Schools students, visit the district’s At-Home Learning.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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