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March 23, 2023

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Distance learning has many Clark County students not making the grade

More Clark County students getting at least one F as remote learning drags on, motivation falls off

By , Columbian staff writer
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7 Photos
Freshman Jaydyn Clark, 14, from left, joins fellow student Adelita Spears-Diaz and teacher Stacey Oman as they do classwork in person at Legacy High School. Local school districts have welcomed students deemed academically at-risk for in-person assistance in remote learning. Legacy has 15 to 20 students daily working in small groups at the school since September. Spears-Diaz, a sophomore, said she prefers working at school than home for remote learning.
Freshman Jaydyn Clark, 14, from left, joins fellow student Adelita Spears-Diaz and teacher Stacey Oman as they do classwork in person at Legacy High School. Local school districts have welcomed students deemed academically at-risk for in-person assistance in remote learning. Legacy has 15 to 20 students daily working in small groups at the school since September. Spears-Diaz, a sophomore, said she prefers working at school than home for remote learning. "The environment is better," she said, and "it helps me learn better." (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

An alarming number of Clark County high school students are on track to fail classes when the first semester ends this week, bolstering evidence that distance education on computer screens has not worked for many students.

Local school districts’ academic performance data requested by The Columbian mirrors a national trend of higher-than-average failure rates among students in grades nine to 12 during the pandemic. Data shows local failure rates range from 23.9 to 419 percent higher than during the same progress report grading period in 2019, with consequences more pronounced for lower-income and minority students.

To remedy the issue, district leaders say they’re building on support systems currently in place for the most vulnerable students and continuing to focus on short- and long-term solutions to ensure students succeed in what’s been their most disruptive year of their academic careers.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s revised guidelines for school districts last month loosened restrictions to allow more students to gradually return to the classroom based on a county’s COVID-19 transmission numbers. And while districts are welcoming younger learners into a twice-a-week hybrid setting, Clark County might not see high school students back in the classrooms until March — a full year after Inslee shut down schools to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

During a January workshop meeting, Battle Ground School Board director Monty Anderson expressed that while no fault of educators or students, he feels the system of remote learning, in many cases, has failed students.

Said Anderson at the workshop: “We need to make sure we do everything we can to set the proper stage for those kids to succeed.”

Tsunami of Fs

Even students who perform well in school during normal times are struggling with remote learning. Weeks into his high school senior year, Hal Hughey’s plummeting grades in remote learning were a wake-up call.

“It was bad,” said the Battle Ground High School student, who sported a 3.35 grade-point average entering the 2020-21 school year. “When school started, I was not prepared for the balance of everything. … I had to figure out a new strategy to get ahead.”

Hughey, 18, takes pride in academics as an Advanced Placement student at Battle Ground and a Running Start student through Clark College. The senior knows learning from home is helping keep students like him safer during COVID-19, but it’s also made it harder for many students to stay motivated learning in a virtual setting.

And that’s led to a tsunami of Fs.

Clark County’s two largest districts, Evergreen and Vancouver, reported high school failure rates 59.9 percent and 51.5 percent higher, respectively, than during similar progress report period in 2019 — months before schools were interrupted by the pandemic. Vancouver Public Schools said 50 percent of its high school students — 3,074 district-wide — recorded at least one F during the initial fall quarter grading period. Evergreen came in at almost 44 percent of grade nine to 12 students with at least one F — 3,203 — in one or more classes in late November.

Teachers who spoke to The Columbian see a number of factors causing an unprecedented wave of lower grades, including sporadic attendance, connectivity issues, disengagement, and for some, domestic responsibilities that can lead teens into not logging in for class. While some students have thrived in an online environment, others simply struggle finding a groove.

That’s how Megan Masters, a senior at Ridgefield High School, feels. She said she learns better surrounded by students, and finds motivation online difficult.

“When I’m in a classroom,” she said, “I definitely work a lot better.”

Last spring, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction adopted revised grading practices so students could boost their grades, not lower them, in the final months of the school year. OSPI also asked school districts to not fail students; the lowest grade students could receive was an incomplete.

Attendance policies and grading standards have returned in an effort to project normalcy. That means students can get failing grades, and the difficulties of remote learning have made that potential a reality.

At one point this semester, Hughey at Battle Ground had 47 missing assignments in his personal finance class, and worked to cut that number down by two-thirds over winter break. Staying motivated and keeping up with assignments can be as much of a struggle as absorbing content. Hughey’s grades improved to Cs and Ds when he spoke with The Columbian in early January — three weeks before the end of the first semester in Battle Ground Public Schools.

Hughey knows he is luckier than many when it comes to having a strong support system at home, quiet studying areas and good internet connection. Like others The Columbian spoke to for this story, he said he is grateful for the compassion and grace shown by teachers who keep finding new ways to keep students engaged. He knows teaching in a pandemic isn’t easy, but closing out his high school career forced to learn at home has become a chore, especially without extracurricular outlets. He misses what could have been.

“You work really hard the first three years,” Hughey said, “and the fourth one is the best one — the best memories. … It’s the last time you’re with all these important people who made you who you are.”

Hockinson sophomore Enzo Oliverio is holding onto a B average, but finds learning online comes at a slower pace. It can lead to frustration, he said, though he said remote learning makes him more accountable. That’s because assignments can pile up fast in real-time, he said.

“You can get left behind pretty easily when it’s online school,” he said.

Even at a small high school like Hockinson, there are students Oliverio, 15, doesn’t recognize online. Districts encourage, but don’t require, students to turn on their cameras while on district-issued devices. Oliverio wants to, but often, it’s “just me in the spotlight,” he said. Hockinson begins high school live-instruction at 12:30 p.m., leaving the teen more time to stay up late and sleep in. One of his six current teachers he had as a ninth-grader. He’s looking forward to meeting the other five in-person soon.

“I don’t know anything about my teachers,” he said. “They give us our assignments and let us go.”

Magnifying disadvantages

Phillip Pearson, first-year principal at Woodland High School, hasn’t met the majority of the school’s student body since being hired by the district last spring. But he’s helped quite a few of them as part of a team that does home visits, Zoom check-ins and small-group learning “bubbles” for the most vulnerable.

“Every administrator has adopted a few kids, figuratively speaking,” the principal said.

Nearly 1 in 5 students at the 571-student school identifies as Hispanic, according to state data. Districtwide, that number is 23 percent. Across the region, many English Language Learners, students with disabilities, homeless students and students receiving free and reduced meals are hit hard by remote learning, according to local school district data. In Vancouver, 79 percent of emerging bilingual high school students had failing grades after the first quarter. In Battle Ground, 47 percent of the district’s 158 ELL high school students had failing grades.

Pearson said 63 percent of Woodland’s failing grades come from kids facing poverty, and close to one-third of the school’s Hispanic students had failing grades entering January. Pearson called remote learning’s impact on those student groups particularly heartbreaking.

“The kids who are in less-affluent homes are the ones being most catastrophically impacted,” Pearson said. “(Remote learning) is a magnifying glass to those disadvantages. It just really brings it out.”

Like Woodland, other local districts expanded outreach efforts by creating student engagement teams made up of administrators, teachers and specialists, and identified at-risk students falling farthest behind for small-group in-person services.

Evergreen, the region’s largest district, welcomed roughly 10 percent of its student population for in-person services by late September, including those needing academic assistance with remote learning, said district spokeswoman Gail Spolar. The district increased the number of middle and high school students needing academic assistance Jan. 19 — the same day it expanded the kindergarten school day and launched part-time in-person classes for first graders.

Vancouver identified 953 students district-wide deemed academically at-risk across all grades . Students began voluntary in-person assistance with school support staff members earlier this month.

Arlisa Hinton is one of five student advocates at Fort Vancouver High School, where 71 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty. In her role, she serves as liaison between students and their teachers. Hinton has worked with 16 students in pods of four twice a week at the school since Jan. 7, and already sees re-energized teens focusing on study skills and academic goals thanks to in-person attention.

“They are soaking it up,” Hinton said.

‘All hands on deck’

Jim Gray, VPS’ executive director of teaching and learning for high schools, told The Columbian the district is taking an “all hands on deck” approach with school leaders to reach out and provide support for families, while continuing to focus instruction assessment to help all students achieve essential skills or standards. In a recent school board presentation, Gray outlined how if current grading trends continue for this year’s high school senior class, 300 more seniors are on track not to graduate on time.

“Without question,” Gray told The Columbian, “the pandemic has made it more difficult for high school seniors to complete their requirements of graduation.” He added the district is committed to maintaining its climbing on-time graduation numbers the past 10 years. It reached 89.4 percent in 2020.

The pandemic led Masters, the Ridgefield senior, to change her post-high school plans. Instead of entering the airline industry, she’ll enroll at Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university in Phoenix. Earlier this month, she organized a student-led rally outside Ridgefield School District offices urging the importance of in-person learning for all grades since she believed students’ voices hadn’t been heard.

She said learning at home feels like “senioritis times 10,” but as the second semester approaches and chances of a hybrid setting for secondary students draws closer, Masters aims to stay positive.

Her wish list isn’t long.

“To get back into the classroom,” she said, “would be amazing.”