William Loss

William Loss

COVID-19 is doing frustrating and unpredictable things to just about every business and organization in the country, and the Watertown Unified School District has not been immune to its effects.

For the district, among these negative impacts have been what local educators are calling an alarmingly high number of failing grades among the freshmen class.

WUSD officials agreed Monday at a meeting of the school board, that they will continue to do all they can to stem the rising tide of falling grades among, mainly, ninth graders in the school system. Educators and others in the district’s student services area said they have been doing their best to reach out to pupils who are having problems studying remotely from their homes as they try to stay safe in the COVID-19 environment.

According to information provided by the district, the number of students with single grades of “F” has not changed significantly from other years, but since last spring and fall, students with multiple grades of “F” have increased 2.5 times.

District officials said there is a 15% failure rate in core classes. District statistics indicated that 10% of the student population is responsible for roughly 70% of all failing grades and are at greatest risk. The other 90% remain on track to graduate on time.

School district leaders said that some students’ problems learning this school year are caused by many different factors. These include general distraction and disenfranchisement that comes with being at home during the week and not with their peers.

There are also socio-economic concerns. Sometimes a student’s parents will have to be at work during the day, leaving the freshman-aged child with younger siblings they have to watch over — and possibly even help with their school work.

Outreach plans are in the works for credit-recovery for students who are failing some of their classes, so they don’t fall into credit deficits for their entire high school careers.

Summer school options and a “Breakfast Club” study group to engage students with fun activities and learning to start their days are also being worked out. Educators agreed Monday that every effort is being made to engage students in-person, at the school, to combat disengagement educators feel is leading to the trouble with learning.

Watertown High School School Principal William Loss and others who work with the students who are having problems with virtual, or remote, learning said there is a lot of quality teaching taking place in the district at the moment, despite COVID-19 complications. But it comes down to “engagement of students,” they said, adding some are not paying attention as they deal with assignments remotely and the key to success in Watertown seems to be in-person, in the building teaching.

The educators said they are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to alleviating the learning problems of students concerned. They added that there are still the same number of A’s and B’s being earned by other students, and it seems that others in the student population are not having problems with remote or face-to-face learning during the pandemic.

“Our teachers are working incredibly hard to reach these kids in two different modalities,” Loss said.

Loss told the Daily Times Tuesday that the transition to high school is typically the most challenging experience in one’s academic career. He said students face more rigorous academic demands, as well as increased expectations of responsibility, autonomy and self-advocacy.

“Historically, we have supported freshmen with experiences such as Freshmen Experience, an orientation program, and our peer-mentoring program,” he said. “While we attempted to offer these programs virtually, there is little doubt that the acclimation to high school this year was radically altered. Moreover, the lack of face-to-face instruction has made relationship building — something we pride ourselves on — challenging.”

Loss and his colleagues said they have been addressing the matter of increased failing grades by meeting with students and their parents to discuss ways in which they can work together to get back on track.

“This includes creating short- and long-term goals for student success and addressing any barriers that may be impacting performance,” he said. “This will continue to be an ongoing process. We have also adjusted student schedules to immediately recover lost credit. In addition, we will be launching a credit-recovery program during the third trimester so that students can work with teachers to meet learning outcomes and recover credit. This ‘Breakfast Club’ is being supported through the generosity of the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation and we are grateful for their support. Furthermore, we have revamped our summer school program to allow students to recover more credits. These cumulative efforts, and others still in the planning stages, will provide opportunities for students to get back on track prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year.”

The district is also increasing its collaboration with Dodge and Jefferson County human services officials to get their input on how to better reach students who are having trouble.

Educators noted the situation is not unique to Watertown. Districts across the nation are experiencing similar problems.

Jennifer Bakke of the board called some of the statistics on the rate of failing grades “dismal,” but said she appreciates the ongoing efforts of the district administration as it fights to address the problems.

“We provide so much social structure,” Bakke said of the district. “Hats off to the administration and others involved in this.”

School board members agreed that the district’s buildings remaining open is key to keeping students engaged and meeting with learning success.

Watertown School Board President Tony Arnett acknowledged what he called “a massive amount of effort” on the part of district educators and student services staff to put an end to the wave of failing grades, but Arnett said he wants this to translate to measurable results.

Arnett suggested setting goals, then tracking the progress, so a presentation has been tentatively set for February. At this event, ways to measure progress toward district goals can be discussed.

WUSD Superintendent Cassandra Schug said, overall at this point in the pandemic, the district is “settling into our routines and practices.”

She said the WUSD is doing all it can to continue educating students “face-to-face” and is working to address credit-recovery for students who are struggling with failing grades.

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