Published Jan. 26, 2021
By MICHAEL LAKIND
As the first semester of the 2020-21 school year came and went, the effects of online learning caught up to students. While every student in the Carmel High School community has processed it differently, this new educational environment has been accompanied by both an increasing rate of failing grades and many new methods by CHS admin and staff to approach this problem.
According to CHS principal Jon Lyons, 25% of the student population — about 209 students— have been assigned to office hours at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester due to academic shortcomings in the first semester.
The administrative team at CHS has been working since summer 2020, developing their best approach to a learning model in this online world. But, this model proved to be troublesome for many during its first iteration in last spring.
“What we’ve seen is that there are clearly students who are struggling academically in this model, and so what we’ve had to do is think about why they are struggling and how we service that,” Lyons says. “From the third progress report to date, what we’ve seen is roughly a 9% increase in the number of D and F grades.”
While earning a D still grants a student credit towards their high school diploma, such a grade is not recognized by the University of California and California State University systems, so administrators lump recipients of either grade in the same category.
While much of the CHS educational structure has changed, one constant has been the multitude of students having a hard time with learning from home. Whether it has been the content itself or a lack of motivation to complete the tasks assigned to them, students have dealt with a variety of issues for which teachers’ help could only go so far.
“Just keeping on track was my biggest issue,” one CHS sophomore says. “Yes, Google Classroom is available, but I get burnt out really easily, and so after a long day of school I don’t want to keep doing more work.”
A large-scale process currently in use is cohorting students on campus. Students are identified by an intervention team based on their need for improvement, and they are assigned progressively longer sessions depending on their performance under supervision from certificated staff members. Assistant principal Debbi Puente reports that from Monday to Thursday, there have been 10-12 groups of 14 students meeting on campus since November with more to be added in February.
To combat the rising number of failing grades this past semester, many support programs have recently been created or introduced to CHS. One of these is Paper, a 24/7 online service that connects subscribed students to a live tutor on any subject. And, of course, there’s CHS Connect, a weekly mandatory meeting of randomized groups within each grade level, which has gone from an hour long with staggered starting times to 30 minutes long with an 8:30 a.m. start time for all students.
“What we wanted to do with Connect was normalize it,” Lyons says. “When we did the student survey, students overwhelmingly said we don’t need a full hour of this, and that gave us the opportunity to add that next section of office hours.”
After the laissez-faire asynchronous style of spring 2020, balancing direct student engagement with freedom from Zoom meetings has been another nuanced challenge. Some students report that they need the presence of a scheduled routine in order to function academically, but others say they greatly preferred the ability to plan their day as they saw fit while getting work done along the way.
“I think it was easier last year with only the short Zoom calls once a week,” one CHS student says. “I think I definitely gained this unmotivated mindset this year, because last year it was a completely different setup that I think worked better.”
One of the biggest changes to the school’s support structure at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester was the role of the campus supervisors. As a part of the school’s classified staff, the team who would usually be making laps in a golf cart with a walkie-talkie in hand have been tasked with maintaining the new version of the CHS “campus,” which involves contact with students who have shown signs of struggling.
“We realized students weren’t coming to class, and we looked around wondering, ‘How can we help these kids?’ and our classified staff really stepped up,” Puente explains. “They are really the ones who are the boots on the ground. They started calling kids regularly to try to get them engaged. From there we assigned them teachers, so [the classified staff] would work in unison with teachers.”
From the beginning of this school year there have been strategies in place to try and provide support to students, stemming from the creation and implementation of the modified Friday schedule. Originally having three voluntary office hours and an hour-long CHS Connect session, the schedule shifted to accomodate for a fourth office hours time slot since more and more students needed mandatory attendance with specific teachers.
Each teacher at CHS was tasked with keeping their online curriculum as close to the real thing as possible, which proved to be just as difficult as it sounds. Even while having the chaotic fourth quarter of the 2019-20 school year under their belts, teachers were met with challenges in their ability to plan and design a curriculum that would hold up online.
“I didn’t lower my expectations for student learning, but I had to lower my expectations when it came to the amount of content covered,” math teacher Jody Roberts says. “I didn’t make decisions of what to teach and what not to teach lightly. Much collaboration went on within the math department before pacing guides were decided upon.”
Reports from 20 teachers of varying grade levels reveal that not every class saw decreased performance across the board. Some noticed a halfpipe shape instead of a bell curve as high/low extremes replaced the normal commonality of middle-ground students. Other teachers even saw what might have been deemed impossible when preparing for this year: an increase in scoring.
“Interestingly enough, the overall percentage for students was just slightly higher in 2020 than in 2019,” says English teacher Dale DePalatis, marking an exception to the perceived expectations of distance learning. “This might have been because I offered more extra credit this year, but those who were motivated took advantage of that rather than those who got D’s or F’s.”
The educational framework in use today is very different from how it began in fall 2020, and it will continue to evolve with CHS’ hybrid model plan, which will be released in its entirety by the end of January.