A deeper dive into the demographics of St. Paul Public Schools' failing grades shows wide disparities between white students and students of color.

According to secondary-school data presented to school board members last week, 48% of Asian students and 60% of Black students — the district's two largest constituencies — failed one or more courses in the first quarter, compared with 22% of white students.

To some in attendance, the disparities were not surprising for a district with a persistent achievement gap. School systems across the country, including Minneapolis, are seeing a rise in failing marks during a pandemic that has disrupted in-person instruction and made one-to-one supports difficult to deliver.

Overall, however, the numbers were jarring: Nearly one-half of St. Paul's secondary students failed a class during first quarter, compared with a little more than one-quarter of those in grades 6-12 a year ago.

"You cannot look at this and say the kids are all right," said Board Member Steve Marchese, who advised Superintendent Joe Gothard and his administration to act boldly to get kids back on track.

Gothard is pinning his hopes on a return to in-person supports.

The district has been in distance-learning mode for all but a small group of special education students since the start of the pandemic in March. But for about a month this fall, the district operated an academic support center at Washington Technology Magnet School on the North End, and kids who participated showed improvements, Gothard said.

The district was forced, however, to close the support center in November as COVID-19 cases soared in Ramsey County. St. Paul now plans to revive in-person help, but not until February — though that on-site assistance will be expanded to all schools with grades 6-12 students, the district announced this week.

Earlier, St. Paul stepped up efforts to provide virtual tutoring and credit-recovery strategies for struggling students. Board members were told this month that students who make enough progress to notch a passing grade in second quarter would be considered to have been on track in both quarters one and two.

In Minneapolis, failure rates for high schoolers during the first quarter went from 3% last year to 6% this year for white students and from 14% to 22% for Black students.

Kate Wilcox-Harris, chief academic officer in St. Paul, said the district has maintained a sense of urgency since the start of the pandemic. She invited board members to think of the school system as a building on fire striving to get students to the exits and employing "whatever it takes to get them there," she said.

Board Member Chauntyll Allen, a former education assistant at Como Park High School, said: "The building has been on fire for quite some time." She advised quick action, and said she would continue applying pressure.

This month's discussions about "ensuring high levels of instruction and learning during COVID-19" spanned several hours over the course of two meetings, with a lot of talk about work underway to make the most of in-person opportunities.

Board Member Jim Vue said that while he was hearing a lot of good ideas, he felt the presentations were more like brainstorming sessions, and he was yearning for an actual plan.

Gothard said he knows students are hurting and takes it personally.

"I will bring back plans. I will bring back demonstrated progress for our students," he told board members. "We can't wait. It's too important."