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Harford schools experience challenges with increases in failing grades, attendance, first-quarter data shows

Harford County Public Schools have seen significant challenges related to student attendance, as well as keeping students engaged in classwork, during the first quarter of the current school year, according to data presented to the Board of Education this week.

The majority of Harford County Public Schools’ more than 37,000 students have been learning online from home during the first semester as school system officials work to ensure student and staff safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Virtual learning has drawn criticism from a number of HCPS parents concerned about how isolation from peers and teachers could harm their children. A number of anecdotes have been posted online about students struggling with schoolwork and failing classes, as well as not logging in through the school system’s attendance app or logging in but not participating in class.

Phillip Snyder, supervisor of accountability, acknowledged during the board meeting Monday that he sees stories in the news on a daily basis about how students across the U.S. are failing because of the pandemic.

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“We do have some struggles, we do have some challenges, but we are working to overcome those, and this is really not unique to Harford County,” he said.

Snyder led a group of HCPS officials in their presentation of data from the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, which ended Nov. 6. The presentation included attendance data, as well as reading and mathematics assessments and report card grades for the first quarter.

Snyder and his colleagues went out of their way to praise teachers, staff and school administrators for their efforts in adapting to teaching in a virtual format and seeking ways to keep students engaged so far.

“Even though some of the data points are things that we want to improve on and change, I want to really give a shout out to the teachers who are working so creatively to help kids every single day,” said Michael O’Brien, executive director of middle and high school performance, who also lauded administrators “who are still in the school buildings, working hard, doing everything they can.”

“For any member of the public, if your child is struggling with either mental health or struggling with academic achievement in the virtual [environment], please, please reach out,” O’Brien said. “Reach out to your principal, reach out to your counselor, because there is help out there.”

First-quarter data

The data for this year indicates that 12.6% of first-quarter grades given to students in third through 12th grades were failing grades, and that 41.1% of ninth-graders had at least one failing grade, a 10.2% increase from the same time last year.

Students at the primary level — kindergarten through second grade — do not get report cards, but checklists and comments from teachers were sent to parents, the same process as past years.

Third through fifth-grade students did get a report card grade for the first quarter this year, which is new in 2020-21. Students in those grades typically get feedback on their first-quarter performance through conferences with teachers, according to Snyder.

When broken down for smaller groups, 17.9% of middle-school students on free and reduced-price meals had at least one failing grade, along with 20.6% of male high school students and 18.9% of high school students who qualify for free and reduced meals.

The rate of student attendance has increased by 1% for elementary-school students, compared to the first quarter of the previous school year, but it has decreased by 0.6 percent for secondary students in middle and high school.

Snyder highlighted three groups of students — middle schoolers who speak English as a second language, English-language learners in high school and high school students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals — who show the largest gaps in rates of attendance compared with their peers.

English-language learners in middle school, a group numbering 141 students, have a 4.9% gap in attendance compared to other student groups. Low-income high school students, numbering 3,691, show a 4.4% gap, and English-language learners in high school have the largest gap, 8.6%, for a group of 183 students, according to the data.

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Students took local reading and math assessments between late September and mid-November. Snyder stressed that the assessments only reflect performance for the first quarter, and students are ultimately held to a standard based on how they perform on tests by the end of the school year.

“We are going to see a higher percentage of students being below expectations at the beginning of the year because obviously very little instruction has occurred,” he noted. “We’re only a quarter of the way through the school year.”

School officials monitor how students perform on assessments throughout the year, so “by the time the students complete that grade level, we want to see that they are on track and ready to move forward,” Snyder said.

First-quarter reading scores improved overall, compared to the same period a year ago, with a 1% decrease in the number of elementary students and a 1.1% decrease in the number of middle-school students who score at a level of “below expectations,” according to the data.

There were gaps in performance for some groups of students versus their peers, including a 41.2% gap for English-language learners in elementary school, 58.8% for ELL students in middle school and 43.3% for middle school students with disabilities.

Students in second through 12th grade were given a new math assessment this year, so officials could not make a comparison to last year, according to Snyder. He also highlighted performance gaps on the math assessment, however, with a 21% gap for English-language learners in elementary school, 27.4% for ELL students in middle school and a 27.5% gap for middle school students with disabilities.

Phoebe Bailey, the student representative on the school board, asked officials about their outreach to groups of students who are showing the largest gaps in achievement so far, such as English-language learners.

“It is a vulnerable population,” Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum and assessment, said of ELL students. She stressed that officials “want to ensure that we are doing everything we possibly can to make sure they are successful.”

Such measures include ELL teachers who work with students and their classroom teachers, as well as partnerships with community organizations such as Bel Air-based LASOS Inc. or Linking All So Others Succeed, and outreach to churches and other community groups.

Brown also touched on efforts to work with students with disabilities and students from low-income backgrounds.

“We continue to have conversations regarding all of those populations, because we know they are the populations that are vulnerable,” she said. “We continue to talk about the possible gaps that we do see, as evidenced by the data that we shared this evening.”

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Board member Dr. Roy Phillips asked about ways to better engage with students who are struggling academically and “try to get them more actively involved” in their schoolwork.

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O’Brien and Renee Villareal, executive director of elementary education, discussed the many ways their departments are working with school staff, teachers and administrators to reach out to students and their families.

Such methods include ensuring all students have checked in on the attendance app and then frequent check-ins by teachers during class so students aren’t “ghosting” and playing video games or sleeping while still checked in, O’Brien noted. Schools can call families and even make home visits to ensure students are attending and engaged in their classes.

Villareal, who cited a “team approach” by school staff to reach out to students and families, recalled one elementary principal telling her about visiting the home of a student who had not been seen online for several times in a week. The principal called first but did not get an answer, but then visited and talked to the student’s mother who was not aware her child not present for classes.

“Our elementary schools have really developed some protocols to assist families,” Villareal said.

Mental health support

Bernard Hennigan, executive director of student services, presented an infographic that shows the many ways school staff at all levels are reaching out to students to provide academic and mental health support during virtual learning — that includes a showing of a videos on self care, produced by the school system’s Emotional Recovery Team, that students are scheduled to view Wednesday.

The video is designed to reassure students, who might be thinking they are the only ones struggling, that “really everybody, the adults and the students have their struggles and their successes with it,” Hennigan said of virtual learning. “We’re really all in this together.”

He and his colleagues noted that there have been success stories in the first quarter, such as a reduced dropout rate, a decrease in the number of ninth-grade students at Patterson Mill High School who have failing grades compared to last year, as well as an elementary student who struggled with regulating emotions and completing tasks while learning in person. The same student is “thriving and doing great” in the virtual environment, Hennigan said.

“This work, while it’s extremely important and valuable, is not needed for every student,” he said of the multiple mental health outreach efforts.

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