Utah schools step up efforts as failing grades double

By Tania Dean and Deanie Wimmer, KSL TV | Posted - Apr. 16, 2021 at 9:55 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY – Between online learning, school closures and other challenges brought by the pandemic, many students are struggling. In some Utah districts, the number of failing grades more than doubled from the previous school year. Schools are now taking extra measures to get students caught up.

Ask any student how the school year was, and you'll get similar answers.

"This year has been kind of hard with having motivation," said Davion Washington, senior at Jordan High School.

"It's kind of crazy, especially going online and offline," said Logan Baker, senior at West Jordan High. "It's definitely difficult."

"I had a couple friends that just stayed online, and they sometimes lack motivation to get a bunch of the assignments done because it is hard doing it from a screen," said Daniela Bustos, senior at West Jordan High.

West Jordan High is just one of many high schools across the state that's dealing with a higher number of students failing classes.

"We have had a lot more failing grades," said school counselor Brandt Haberman. "Some students have done really well, and that transition has been really great for them, but some students have also really struggled. And I will say more students have struggled."

Failing grades

The KSL Education Impact Team analyzed data from five major school districts and found that failing grades are a problem almost across the board.

In the Jordan School District, 17,203 students had at least one "F" at the end of second term. That's more than double the number from the same time during the previous (2019-2020) school year.

The Granite School District had a similar issue. At the end of second term in the 2019-2020 school year, 19,786 students had at least one failing grade. This year, that number was a whopping 43,117 students, or about 20% of all middle and high school students in that district. The percentages are even higher elsewhere. In the Davis School District, 23% of high schoolers were failing a class at the end of second term this school year. In the Canyons District, that number was up to 29% of students.

Extra measures

The data is concerning, and school officials know it. Most districts are taking extra measures to help kids who are struggling.

For example, at West Jordan High there's a class just for students to make up credits by completing packets. The class has always been offered, but this year it's expanded.

"They got about 44 packets finished the whole year last year. So far this year, our students have done 411 packets," said Ron Halbert, who teaches the credit recovery class. The Jordan School District has also hired new "trackers" for all of their high schools this year. They're responsible for tracking down struggling students and getting them the help they need.

"At the beginning of the year we really focused on students that didn't have Wi-Fi at home or computers at home and getting them the support that they needed. We did home visits to check on them, let them know what resources the school had, and the district had for them," said Wendy Gilley.

Since then, the trackers' duties have changed a bit. Now they get to know students individually, set goals, write notes home and build relationships.

For some kids, their emotional needs this year are greater than their academic ones. "They know that we love them and that we care about them and that we worry about them all the time," said Gilley.

While every district KSL researched is dealing with a growing number of "F's," there is one exception: the Salt Lake City School District. As the only district to be fully online for most of the year, it came under scrutiny for its high number of failing grades after first term – 32% of its students were getting at least one "F." "It shone a light on something we knew was there, but it really helped us back up and see it in a different way," said Dr. Tiffany Hall, executive director of teaching and learning for SLCSD.

By recognizing the problem and throwing more resources at it, the district turned that statistic around. By the end of second term, the number of students getting a failing grade dropped to 26%. While it still sounds like a lot, it's the lowest number the district has seen in the past five years.

And they plan to keep working on it. "The idea being that between now and the end of the year there are a lot of those gaps that we're going to be able to close," said Hall. "We're going to be able to finish that learning and have them be ready for the next grade."

Summer School

One very important component to getting students caught up is going to be summer school. Many of the school districts plan to expand their options and expect to have a lot more kids sign up. In some cases, the districts are even making it free this year.

Enrollment starts soon. If you have questions about what's available for your student, check with your school district.

Tania Dean
Deanie Wimmer


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