Some students’ struggle to learn ‘heartbreaking,’ principal says

Board OKs new grading systems to account for challenges of online learning
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington-Saukville School District principals on Monday gave a sobering assessment of online learning and the key role summer school could play for the increasing number of students who are in danger of failing classes.

The reports came as the school board, which met via video conference, approved new grading systems that reflect the challenges of teaching students at home during a pandemic that will keep schools shuttered through the end of the school year.

“I would say about 15% of our students are not as engaged as we’d like them to be,” Port Washington High School Principal Eric Burke told the board. “We’re hunting down these kids one by one and saying, ‘What’s going on? How can we help you?’

“Maybe it’s mental health or anxiety, we don’t know.”

Thomas Jefferson Middle School Principal Steve Sukawaty estimated that as many as 20% of students are struggling. While the majority of students are “doing the best they can,” some are suffering from the lack of face-to-face support that had helped them succeed academically but is impossible to replicate with online instruction, he said. 

“While we have done our level best to provide that support, it is not the same as face-to-face instruction,” he wrote in a memo to the board. “And the same child who was thriving with consistent, face-to-face support may now be struggling. This is certainly not their fault and it is heartbreaking.”

Sukawaty told the board, “We have some students who we haven’t seen much work from at all.”

Board member Aaron Paulin asked if the school has asked the police department to check on students who have not remained in contact with the school.

“We’ve done all that,” Sukawaty said. 

The affects of flagging academic achievement will impact the district even after the pandemic, board member Brian McCutcheon warned.

“There will be consequences for our district because of students who aren’t making the grade,” he said. 

Sukawaty said, “There will definitely be consequences.

“Is it (online instruction) as good as being in a classroom? I can’t say that, but we’re doing absolutely as good a job as we can.”

At the high school, the board approved a new grading system that will retain traditional letter grades for most students but allows others to be given pass/in-progress grades — essentially a pass/fail system that gives students additional opportunities to earn passing marks.

For students who are selected to receive pass/in-progress grades, which will apply to all their classes, and are passing, their second semester work will not affect their grade-point average or class rank.

For students who aren’t passing classes and receive in-progress marks, they will be given opportunities to earn passing marks. Exams are canceled, and the days scheduled for the final tests during the first week of June will instead be used to provide additional support to students who are failing classes. 

“There are probably some kids who are so far behind that the week will not be enough,” Burke said. “We’re finding a lot of kids are struggling with a lot of things.”

That leaves summer school for students who are still not passing classes, but plans for classes during the break are complicated by uncertainty about whether they will have to be taught online or if traditional classes can be held at some point during the summer.

“I think summer school will be a challenge,” Burke said. “I don’t know the number of kids who will need summer school or the number of kids who are going to want to go to summer school.”

At the middle school, traditional letter grades will be replaced by numbers ranging from 3 — full evidence of learning — to 1 — limited evidence of learning — and include an NE grade — no evidence of learning. The new system, Sukawaty said, is designed to give teachers more flexibility in evaluating students and eliminate the stigma of receiving a D or an F.

“This provides greater leeway and the professional judgment that is needed at this time,” he said. “One of our goals is to eliminate any mention of failing. Our goal is to take the stress out of a stressful situation.”

Like at the high school, the middle school will offer extra support at the end of the school year and rely on a modified summer school program to help students catch up.

Unlike the typical kindergarten through eighth grade summer school where students can choose from a long list of enrichment and remedial classes, students who enroll in this year’s program will take reading, writing and math classes taught by grade level, as well as one enrichment class. Classes will be held from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays from July 6 through July 31.

But one key detail is unknown.

“The question is, can classes be person-to-person or will they have to be virtual?” Supt. Michael Weber said. 

Jodi Swagel, an assistant middle school principal who oversees summer school, said, “We’re hoping for in-person but we’re planning behind the scenes for virtual.”

Board member Yvonne Klotz asked, “If kids are struggling virtually online now, why do we think virtual online will work in summer?”

One of the challenges of online education, Weber said, is that students have varying levels of support at home.

“If you have one student at home it’s different than if you have four or five and both parents are working,” he said. “We’re doing the very best we can. Hopefully we’ll be back in our buildings in September and we’ll have the opportunity to catch up then.”

At the elementary school level, parents will receive an end-of-the year letter notifying them whether their children have met academic requirements and can proceed to the next grade. 

Dunwiddie Elementary School Principal Joanna Bannon said about 90% of the students at the school are completing their work and communicating regularly with teachers. 

Grading the online work of students in primary grades is difficult, she said, because young students require the help of parents to use computers.

“The virtual piece of education, especially at the primary level, is very different because it depends on parents,” Bannon said. “It’s a little bit muddy to assess mastery at the elementary level when we’re not sure whose work we’re grading.”


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