With one week left in quarter, half of Salem-Keizer high school students failing at least one class

More than 6,700 local high school students are on track to fail at least one class during the fall quarter, a result that administrators in the Salem-Keizer School District find “alarming.” They said that reflects the challenges of teaching online.

At least one high school called a halt to grading new work to focus on catching up students at risk of failing.

The data from the district shows as of Nov. 6, more than half of the 12,700 high schoolers were failing one or more classes. More concerning, the total number of Fs about triple what educators would expect for a normal school year, meaning more students are failing multiple classes, said Assistant Superintendent Iton Udosenata.

The problem isn’t occurring evenly among schools. North Salem and McKay high schools, with the highest percentage of low-income students, are posting the highest failure rates, while Sprague and West Salem high schools have the lowest.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The implications are far-reaching and could weaken the work high school educators have done to boost district graduation rates in recent years. Local graduation rates hit a districtwide high of 79% last year, up from 71% in 2015. Black and Pacific Islander students recorded major gains.

Key to getting seniors to finish is quickly identifying when students may fail classes they need to graduate and getting them extra help to complete the course.

Udosenata, who works with the district’s middle and high schools, said he’s particularly concerned by the number of students failing multiple classes, and by the failure rate among seniors who will have little time to retake courses they must finish.

“This will impact our graduation numbers if we don’t find a way to support these students soon,” Udosenata said.

He pointed to the ways schools are working to help kids, including expanding small in-person groups for struggling students and reaching parents to make sure they know how to check which assignments are missing.

Students have until Friday, Nov. 13, to complete work for this period and potentially boost their grades, a shorter timeframe than in a typical year. The district shifted from semesters to quarters to help students juggle fewer courses at one time.

In normal times, local high school students take eight classes at a time and get final grades following the end of an 18-week semester, typically in late January.

That proved challenging when schools abruptly moved online in March. A district survey toward the end of the year found many middle and high school students were overwhelmed by working so many classes at the same time.

Students now take four classes at a time for nine weeks.

Administrators said that shift was well-received by students and parents, who report being less overwhelmed, but acknowledged that students are used to having more time to catch up if they get behind in class.

“There isn’t a scheduling system that doesn’t have some drawbacks,” said Erik Jespersen, McNary High School principal.

Next week, teachers will post grades for the first quarter.

Without significant help, “there’s not enough runway for kids to improve grades in that short a period of time,” Udosenata said.

Schools have made progress in reducing the number of students failing courses in recent weeks.

At McNary, Jespersen said the school has been able to cut the number of F grades students are likely to receive, though the rate is still far higher than in a typical year.

Jespersen checked on Oct. 10, a few weeks into the start of the year, and found 38% of all grades across the school to date were Fs – a rate three to four times higher than normal.

Many of the failing grades looked different than in prior years. A student failing a class has usually done some work, Jespersen said, but hundreds of the grades reported this fall were 0%, meaning the student had never handed in anything.

To him, that signaled the problem wasn’t with students understanding the material.

“That tells me that there’s connectivity issues, there’s engagement issues,” he said.

McNary teachers had been working one-on-one or in small groups with students in person since almost the start of school, he said, taking advantage of state rules which allow small group help to supplement online classes for students struggling to learn online.

Most of those efforts focused on students with disabilities and students learning English, who were falling farthest behind according to the school’s data, Jespersen said.

In response to the grade data, Jespersen said he asked the school’s teachers to stop giving out graded assignments from Oct. 30 to the end of the quarter, giving students a better chance of catching up with the work they’d already been assigned.

“We would never do that under normal circumstances. But we’re never had 38% (failing grades),” he said.

The switch led to a few complaints from parents and students, he said, but it’s part of the challenge of trying to balance the needs of nearly 2,000 students in a school year unlike any other.

“We’ve got some kids that have absolutely thrived. They haven’t missed a beat,” he said of online school. “We have a lot more kids that have actually gone the other way.”

McNary began bringing more students in for help in small groups too. Jespersen said they often found students had actually completed assigned work at home, but hadn’t turned it in because they couldn’t navigate the online systems.

On Nov. 9 and 10, Jespersen said McNary’s teachers are spending the day working individually with students in their advisory classes, a weekly period intended to help students learn study skills, set goals and stay on track in high school.

Teachers who were willing to work in-person were asked to schedule appointments in their classrooms with students falling behind. The goal was to make it easy for students to get help in one place.

He likened it to a student struggling with school who shows up to study hall with a disorganized backpack stuffed with papers. Often, that student has work they haven’t turned in because it’s lost in a pile of other books and folders.

“A vast majority of our kids are struggling not necessarily because of the content but because of the process that goes with (distance learning),” Jespersen said.

Teachers who aren’t comfortable working in-person can choose to teach their classes regularly or work virtually one-on-one with struggling students.

“Based on the circumstances we currently have, this is our best play,” Jespersen said.

As of Nov. 6, McNary had posted some improvements. The number of F grades was down to 28%, with 896 McNary students failing at least one class, out of about 1,800 students total.

Jespersen said he expects to see more improvement this week following outreach work.

“We are doing everything we can. We’re trying as hard as we can. But we’re not satisfied,” he said.

This article was updated on Nov. 9 at 6:12 p.m. to clarify how this year’s numbers differ from previous years.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.