School board approves revised academic calendar, considers new grading policy

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The Alexandria City School Board. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., and Alexandria City Public Schools staff presented changes to the school division’s academic calendar and grading policy to the school board on April 3.

The school board unanimously approved Hutchings’ proposed changes to the academic calendar for both pre-K through grade five and grade six through grade 12. The board is set to vote on the new grading policies on April 17.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) announced on March 20 that schools statewide would close for the rest of the school year due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Since then, teachers, students and the community have wondered what the rest of the 2019-2020 school year would look like.

The revised continuity of learning plan involves expanding remote learning activities and materials and allowing staff to introduce new material to students, albeit in a limited capacity.

Hutchings noted that the educational plan is an extension of what ACPS is currently doing, not a totally new plan, and he emphasized that it is designed to ensure flexibility and autonomy for staff, especially teachers.

“We understand the pain that our staff is going through,” Hutchings said. “ … We cannot have structures where we say, ‘You have to teach at this time.’”

“The plan is extensive … but there is some guidance for the teachers in terms of how to actually spend that learning time and how to focus on learning during this plan,” Terri Mozingo, chief academic officer, said. “It also … provides the teachers a chance for being real creative and just different ways to engage students during this home learning setting.”

With students off next week for spring break, staff is working to get teachers up to speed on the school division’s revised plan for ongoing remote education in the age of social distancing. April 13 will become a professional day for school staff instead of a teacher work day, which has been moved to April 27.

Regarding changes to the academic calendar, for pre-K through grade five, April 3 remains the end of the third quarter for the 2019-2020 school year, and April 14 will be the first day of the fourth quarter.

For middle schoolers and high schoolers, the third quarter was extended to April 24. The fourth quarter will begin on April 28.

The extension is to allow students to submit late assignments or assignments for reassessment, Gerald Mann, executive director of elementary and secondary instruction, said. Students will now have until April 24 to turn in missing third quarter assignments that were assigned before March 13.

“We settled on extending to the 24th because we know we have students who have not engaged at all with us since March 13,” Mann said. “ … This was really to provide flexibility for our students.”

The school board unanimously adopted the proposed changes to the academic calendar.

Apart from the change to the academic calendar, the most significant element of staff’s revised plan includes concrete changes to the grading policy, which the school board is slated to vote on during its April 17 meeting.

For pre-K through fifth grade students, third quarter progress reports will be based only on work completed on or before March 13. During the fourth quarter, in accordance with new Virginia Department of Education guidelines, pre-K and elementary school students won’t be formally tested on standards. As a result, each standard will be marked either “introduced but not assessed” or “not taught” on fourth quarter progress reports.

The proposed grading policy bears quite a bit more weight for middle school and high school students. For the third quarter, students in grades six through 12 will receive a letter grade based the work they submitted on or before March 13 and completed by April 24.

Starting in the fourth quarter, middle school and high school students will earn either a “pass” or “no grade” for their work in the fourth quarter. The idea is to maximize students’ opportunity to improve their grade while minimizing the negative impact of poor performance, Mann said.

A “pass” would weigh as the equivalent of a 100 percent or A, while a “no grade” would not be factored into students’ final grades for the year. Only students who complete at least 60 percent of their assigned work can benefit from the new policy.

School board member Jacinta Greene expressed concern about how high school juniors’ grade point averages would be impacted by these new policies, given that many students would be submitting their transcripts to colleges and universities at this time. The new grading policy was designed with this in mind, Mann said.

“[Students will] have a letter grade for first, second and third quarter, but if you get a P for the fourth quarter, you actually have a higher grade than you might achieve if we were in regular school session,” Mann said. “ … We wanted to go in a direction that would provide our students flexibility but also benefit them at the same time if they engage with us for the fourth quarter [in] six through 12 grade.”

In terms of ACPS’ educational plan for the remainder of the school year, Hutchings stressed that what ACPS staff has created is bound to change as the situation around COVID-19 changes.

For pre-K through fifth grade students, ACPS has created learning packets that will get mailed out to families at the beginning of the fourth quarter. In addition to learning materials, the learning packets will include tips for families that suggest what role parents can play in remote education, Mozingo said.

Story hour read-a-alongs, televised lessons and other remote engagements will also become part of the lesson plan for pre-K and elementary school students. For middle and high school students, ACPS plans to partner with local cultural groups, such as museums, to create virtual field trips.

“One of the assets of our area is there are a lot of different cultural groups, ways in which kids can get different experiences, so we’re in the process of designing something really unique for that group and working with teachers,” Mozingo said.

One of the ongoing challenges around remote learning is ensuring students, especially those with disabilities or those who don’t speak English as a first language, still receive an equitable education.

The concept of remote education itself can be a barrier for families who don’t have internet access. Without online access, the Google Chromebooks that ACPS provided its students are rendered useless.

To ensure online access, ACPS is working to provide Kajeet internet hotspots to the 600 to 700 students who don’t have internet access. The school division is also testing mobile hotspot technology, Bethany Nickerson, executive director of EL services, said.

ACPS is creating materials in multiple languages through in-house and outsourced translators and emphasizing collaboration between EL teachers and general education teachers.

According to Terry Werner from the Office of Specialized Instruction, virtual eligibility and individualized education program meetings will start the week of April 13 for students with disabilities. The school division will also start offering tele-therapy session for students who need it.

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