ACPS minority, special needs students struggle with virtual learning

ACPS minority, special needs students struggle with virtual learning
This data is from the ACPS Department of Accountability and Research report: "Academic Year 2020-21 Quarter 1 Secondary Course Grade Distribution Data."

By Allison Hageman |

At the Jan. 7 Alexandria School Board meeting, Erika Melman described why virtual learning does not work for her son, an elementary aged Alexandria City Public Schools student with disabilities.

He is hard of hearing and cannot always hear or lip read the sometimes delayed audio of his Virtual PLUS+ classes, Melman said. Her child’s school has tried various options, without success, and so it falls to her, a single mom and essential worker, to be her son’s instructional aide. The months of virtual learning have also caused her son to lose confidence, struggle to reach his goals and develop school avoidant behaviors, she said.

“The costs of virtual school- ing for my student far outweigh the risks of being educated in an in-person setting,” Melman said.

A recent report released by ACPS confirms what Melman told the School Board. The report, compiled by ACPS’ Department of Accountability and Research, shows that middle and high school students earned D’s and F’s in greater numbers across all demographic groups in the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year compared to first quarter of the 2019-20 school year.

The data shows the vulnerable student groups that were struggling in ACPS before the pandemic have been most negatively impacted by the shift to virtual learning.The research concludes that minority and special programs students at the secondary level are failing at higher rates than their peers, and at significantly greater numbers than in the prior year.

The decline is more significant at the middle school level than in high school. The data corroborates anecdotal evidence that younger children are struggling the most with virtual only learning. For instance, 39% of middle school special needs students earned D’s and F’s in Q1 2020-21, compared to 23% the prior year.

“I am concerned,” Patrick Henry K-8 School Principal Ingrid Byrum said. “However, as are all of my colleagues. The data did go down for our secondary students, but we are in a pandemic. …. Virtual learning is new to us. We knew that we were going to eventually have some decreases.”

ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. recently proposed a budget that aims to make up for pandemic education loss by 2025, and racial equity is at the heart of these plans.

Still, Hispanic, Black and English learner students have been disproportionately impacted by virtual learning, widening already existing achievement gaps in the school division.

At the middle school level, the percentage of Hispanic students receiving D’s and F’s increased to 41% in Q1 2020- 21 compared with 21% in Q1 2019-20. Meanwhile, 46% of ACPS middle school English learners earned D’S and F’s in Q1 2020-21 compared with 25% the prior year, according to the report.

The percentage of middle school Black students earning D’s and F’s in Q1 2020- 21 almost doubled from that timeframe the prior year, rising to 28% from 15%.

While secondary level Asian and white students also experienced a decline in academic performance from last school year to this, they started from a baseline of significantly fewer D’s and F’s. Middle school Asian students earned D’s and F’s at twice the rate in Q1 2020-21 as in 2019- 20 – 16% compared to 8% – while white students’ rate of D’s and F’s rose from 5% to 8%.

High school students experienced similar trends, according to the report. The percentage of F’s for all high school students increased from 13% in 2019-20 to 21% in 2020-21, though A’s actually rose slightly as well, rising by 1%, from 38% to 39% over the same period.

“We absolutely did align with national trends in terms of seeing increases in those D’s and F’s, and which we know is a national conversation based on the impact of this pandemic,” Clinton Page, ACPS chief of accountability, said.

Since the results have been released, ACPS administrators have responded with an individualized approach for each student and school in the district. For example, Patrick Henry staff started meeting with each student who was failing and offering tutoring, mentor programs and study halls, according to Bynum.

“We want parents to understand and know that we are in their corner,” Byrum said. “We are working very hard to ensure that our children are going to do better, and we’re committed to making sure that our children are achieving at high levels.”

These options do not always help with academic achievement for all students, particularly the diverse needs of students with disabilities.

Hakan Ozsancak, who has two children in ACPS including one with disabilities, remains positive toward teachers and principals but critical of the administration’s response. The data shows a correlation between grades decreasing and virtual-only learning and there has been a lack of dialogue from the ACPS administration, according to Ozsancak.

“As a parent of a special needs child, I’m really disappointed in Dr. Hutchings and his team and how he’s treated us and how he treated our children. I think they deserve better,” Ozsancak said.

The report confirms what many, parent activists and educators alike, suspected: The academic performance of ACPS secondary students across all demographic groups has dropped significantly with virtual-only learning and existing inequities have worsened during the pandemic.

Page said that ACPS staff nonetheless remain hopeful that the new proposed budget by Hutchings will help end the inequities caused by the pandemic by 2025.

“For us as educators moving forward, we have to focus on how we think differently to truly get at the root causes of these issues,” Page said.