Just a few months into the school year, it's become clear that a significant number of St. Paul high schoolers might not graduate next spring. Earlier this month, district officials reported that students were failing more than one-third of their online high school classes as of Nov. 13.
That means the St. Paul district — and other school systems with similar problems — must double down on efforts to improve distance learning. And they'll need family and community support to help as higher COVID rates continue to keep schools closed.
About 40% of first-quarter grades given to St. Paul public high school students were F's. Those failing grades were given to about 400 mostly juniors and seniors for at least one of their courses. And district leaders predict that the number of teens needing to regain credits could rise to nearly 900 at some point in 2020-21 — double the number in credit trouble at this time last year.
St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard told an editorial writer that his staffers are working to find out what obstacles students are facing and developing individualized learning plans for them. He said some of the teens are completely disengaged — failing to log in at all or even attempt to complete assignments. Others are trying but find it difficult to keep up online and need in-person assistance to stay on track.
To help them, St. Paul has an "Evening High School" that it created for credit-recovery purposes. It, too, is in distance learning mode but with more synchronous, or live, online instruction. Last month, the district opened an academic support center at Washington Technology Magnet School on the North End. Students are referred there by teachers, counselors and others for in-person academic and social-emotional supports. And the district expects to soon open Saturday morning "Senior Blitz" workshops to help students make up credits.
"We have to do something about his — now," Gothard said. "We're finding new ways to support students and letting our families know that we're here for them."
A Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) spokeswoman told an editorial writer via e-mail that although the department keeps track of attendance and graduation rates, it does not collect data on "student grades or a record of courses they have passed or failed." She wrote that MDE has consistently directed schools to prioritize in-person learning whenever possible, especially for students who may need extra help and are falling behind.
St. Paul is not alone in dealing with this challenge. High schoolers are failing courses at higher rates nationwide — especially in larger urban districts with similar student populations. Two districts in the Bay Area of California, for example, said nearly one-third of their students were failing at least one class, according to news reports.
The lack of face-to-face communication with classmates and teachers can be very frustrating for some students — especially those who were already struggling in traditional schools. Moreover, studies show that social engagement and community components tend to better engage students.
COVID has created major challenges for educators. Nevertheless, schools, families and communities must rise to that challenge and find ways to get failing students the help they need to turn things around.