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With more students receiving failing grades, Harford schools planning ‘aggressive’ academic recovery efforts

Close to 8% of third- through fifth-graders, nearly a third of middle schoolers and more than 35% of high school students in Harford County Public Schools had at least one failing grade in the second quarter of the current school year.

All of those percentages, as well as the number of students, increased from the first quarter, when4.3% of third- through fifth-graders,28.1% of sixth- through eighth-graders, and 34.9% of ninth- through 12th-graders had at least one failing grade, according to HCPS data.

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The school system provided that data at the request of The Aegis, several days after Superintendent Sean Bulson highlighted the start of a program to help students recover academically.

“Students either disengage with school, or students showing [an] increased number of failing grades, has been up this year — we’re very aware of that,” Bulson said during a Board of Education meeting Monday.

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“We’re also beginning very aggressive efforts to help students recover, and that work will continue through the spring, through the summer and probably through all of next year.”

School system officials have been monitoring students’ grades during the 2020-21 school year, which is currently in its third quarter, as the majority of HCPS’ nearly 38,000 students learned online from home — and teachers give their lessons live online — while schools have been closed for in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic until recently.

Officials discussed with the board in December how many students struggled with grades, attendance and mental health issues while learning virtually in the first quarter of this school year, especially those such as English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

The number of students with failing grades during the first semester of the current school year increased from the same time during the previous year — schools were open during the majority of the 2019-20 school year but had to close last March once the pandemic began.

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More than 1,400, or 15.6%, of middle school students had at least one failing grade during the first quarter of last year, and 1,738, or 19% had at least one failing grade during the second quarter. More than 2,600 high school students, or 23.1%, had at least one failing grade during the first quarter, while 3,108, or 27.7%, were failing in the second quarter, according to HCPS data.

Grades for third through fifth-graders were not available for the first semester of last year, as school officials began assigning grades to students at those levels this year — elementary students had parent-teacher conferences in prior years.

Elementary students returned to their schools on a two-day-a-week hybrid basis March 1, and middle and high school students returned for one day a week March 15; the hybrid will increase to four days a week for elementary next Monday, March 29, and on April 7 for secondary students.

Fridays will be set aside for asynchronous learning for the rest of the current school year, giving students time to catch up on their classwork and teachers time to interact with colleagues, help students on an individual or small-group basis and put together lesson plans.

The asynchronous Fridays also have been a time when schools can intervene with students who are falling behind — interventions for those students also have happened before, during and after other school days, according to Rebecca Pensero, coordinator of eLearning.

Penseo discussed how schools have used various math and reading assessments to track which students are falling behind, and the programs used to help them catch up.

Middle school students who have failed at least two quarters this year can take part in a recovery program during the fourth quarter, which runs from April 1 to June 11. The sessions will be virtual, through Microsoft Teams, and happen two days a week, up to two hours each day.

“Students will be able to replace their failing grade if they successfully complete all aspects of the program,” Pensero said.

A similar program, using the Florida Virtual School system, will be in place during the fourth quarter for high school students who have failed two or more quarters, and they can earn passing grades upon successful completion of that program, according to Pensero.

“Our recovery efforts are going to go through the spring, and we’re planning some summer recovery efforts as well, and into next school year,” she said.

A brochure with summer recovery programs is being prepared and is expected to be available on the HCPS website around April 12; the school system’s technology department also is developing an app parents can use to register their children for classes — registration is scheduled to go live on May 10, according to Pensero and Jillian Lader, manager of communications for the school system.

“It will be a one-stop shop for parents,” Pensero said of the registration app.

Members of the school board lauded school system officials for their work on the academic recovery program.

“I think it’s going to be a huge benefit to our kids,” Vice President Rachel Gauthier said.

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