“don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.”
As the first semester of the year wraps up, chatter continues around student learning loss. Everybody seems to have an opinion and a willingness to voice it. Nearly every opinion is formed by looking backward, with few eyes cast forward.
Here’s a newsflash, when the calendar changes in two weeks, it’ll read January 2021, not January 2020. Change is coming like it or not, comfortable or not.
The new year will lead to students returning to school buildings and in-person instruction. The expectation seems to be that there will be a seamless return to the days of yore. That best practices of the past will once again assume their place as current best practices. I’d caution against that assumption, and if the goal is truly to do what’s best for students, we need to begin having much more robust conversations.
Let’s not try to predict what’ll happen throughout the rest of the school year. What’s going to transpire is going to transpire. It is what it is. Let’s instead begin considering a return to school for the 2021/2020 school year. I’m talking August, a month that feels far in the future but in reality, is but a blink away.
My presumption is, that by that time, the vaccine will have been delivered and the virus been brought under control. School buildings will open and things will progress in a manner many of us would describe as normal. But many things will have changed over the past 18 months. To what extent, we have no way of knowing. There are still many questions awaiting answers.
How many students will still be enrolled in public schools? Let’s take a look at what transpired over the last 6 months. Analyzing data provided by MNPS on their open data site shows the following,
- In April 2020 there were a total of 85, 561 students enrolled in MNPS. By October 2020, that number dropped by 3251 to 82310.
- Most of those losses were at the elementary level where enrollment dropped by 3458, from 33,509 to 30,051.
- High Schools actually grew by 216 students, from 18974 to 19190.
- Middle Schools dropped by a little under 1k students, going from 17,923 to 16,974.
- Charter growth on the flip side was up by nearly 3k, from 13,536 to 16,560.
The argument has been put forth that the district losses mainly stem from families failing to enroll their children in kindergarten, I’d argue that the charter school and middle school numbers indicate otherwise. Charter schools now serve nearly as many students as the district’s Middle Schools. Factor out charter schools, since many argue that they are not public schools, and the district’s schools now serve 65,750. Factor in overall attrition, charter school attrition, and middle school attrition together and the district has lost roughly 7K, or approximately 8% of its population from April of 2020.
What that means is anyone’s guess. Some of those families will likely return, but some others will just as likely leave. That decision will hinge on a lot more than just whether or not school buildings are open or not. A more important factor will be whether families feel that MNPS schools can properly serve them, and that’s an argument that needs to be put forth immediately.
When families face the prospect of returning in August, for many students it will mark 18 months of not being in an in-person classroom. It is safe to say for those students, much has changed. All the focus is on what they’ve lost, but they’ve also made considerable gains over the past 18 months. Gains in areas that despite a lack of measurement, are still important.
Student’s technical proficiency has exploded in the last year. How will in-person instruction support that newly acquired depth of knowledge, and foster more growth? Or, will those newly acquired skills be left to wither on the vine while a mad dash is made in the name of “recovery”?
Many students have accepted their education as their responsibility. As such, they’ve developed independent work skills that have allowed them to flourish. How will that shift in perception be handled in the classroom? There has been much discussion over the last decade over how much school is about learning, and how much of it is about compliance. I suspect that will be an even more hotly contested discussion next school year.
Do we need to return to a five day a week schedule for middle school and high school students? Is it possible to re-arrange schedules to accommodate families who’ve decided they like remote instruction? Is there a way to alter schedules that would allow for the repurposing of funds to provide more services to those that need them? How do we create a virtual option that takes the pressure off of principals to run in essence two schools? if we decouple the virtual option from buildings, what does that look like and what is the impact on individual schools?
These are just a few of the important questions that need answering sooner, rather than later. Re-opening buildings alone are not going to be enough to prevent greater attrition. I suspect that many families will get to the end of this school year, breathe a sigh of relief that they made it, and then realize that they’d rather continue under a remote strategy than change.
There will be parents that return to school buildings only to realize that their memories don’t match up. Car line is longer than remembered. Bullying is more prevalent than they recall, and their kids who weren’t doing the work virtually, aren’t doing the work in-person either. How will these parents be accommodated?
All of this is among the reasons I advocated for the hiring of a Chief of Virtual Schools. Someone who could start building a better offering for those who desired better.
For some, realizing what the options look like may create greater loyalty to individual schools. That feeling needs to be capitalized on as well.
Public school advocates have continually pushed back on charter schools through the lens of attraction, but to have attraction, you have to start with dissatisfaction. It’s like if you are happily married, that wiggling walk and giggling talk, ain’t going to catch your eye. The same holds true for school choice. High satisfaction equals low attrition, and the same holds true for the inverse.
Families have very clear expectations for schools, and if schools are not meeting their needs, now, more than ever, they have options. Few would argue the prudence of remaining in a bad marriage, the same holds true for schools.
The sooner that we recognize that public schools don’t have to all mirror our own school day memories, the more that we can strengthen the umbrella that houses public education. It’s a conversation that can’t follow that of that past summer. One that waited until July 1, to start planning for the long-recognized inevitable.
We can talk long learning loss all day, but that’s just supposition. What’s an undeniable fact is, change is afoot. We either shape it or its shape’s us. Either we capitalize on it, or others will. But it’s happening none the less.
Much of the emphasis on standardized testing for the Spring has centered around TNReady. Rightfully so as it impacts the majority of students. But for some, there is a test of equal importance.
WIDA is the organization that provides the annual access exams for English learners. The access exam is administered annually and has a huge impact on EL students’ educational opportunities by allowing them to exit ELL services. The sooner they can transition to an inclusive environment the faster they can have access to equitable offerings. As such, this is a test that has actual consequences for students, and one we don’t really want to suspend without providing a pathway forward.
Due to WIDA being a secure test, it is required to be administered in person. The TDOE is holding fast to that requirement, even if schools, or students, are still virtual. What this means, is that principals must find a means in which to get students to the building and occupy those once their testing is completed. In schools with smaller EL populations, that’s not much of an issue, as you’re only talking a few dozen students. In South Nashville, for many, it’s a much larger challenge.
Our larger elementary schools may have as many as 500 students per school who receive EL services and as a result, must take WIDA. That’s a lot of people to account for, especially while trying to run both a virtual and an in-person school. planning is made even more difficult due to not knowing whether both options will be available or the school will be all virtual come February’s testing window. We are talking about communication, logistics, manpower, nightmare, that doesn’t have to be.
Now from what I understand, WIDA recognizes this problem and as a result, has been working on remote administration and/or alternative means of exiting students. If the TDOE was even remotely competent, or adequately staffed in the EL Department, they would be working with LEA’s to explore these alternatives in order to ensure student safety while providing equitable opportunity.
A possible idea would be to provide provisional exits based on a process that includes team consensus, review of formative assessments, and parent input. The provisional opportunity is already available, districts just need to utilize it. One possibility could be where schools could put together review teams that consist of a principal/AP, an ELL coach, content teachers, and the EL teacher to review a student’s eligibility for a provisional exit. All would be required to sign off, with no “nays”. Also, the student’s existing formative assessments trajectory trend would be reviewed, to ensure that they were either approaching or at a mastery level to receive a provisional exit.
The last element would be parental input. This factor shouldn’t hold as much weight as the previous 2 factors, but shouldn’t be omitted.
In the fall or the following spring, students with provisional exits would be required to retest. If they failed to pass the re-test, they could be moved back into EL services. The emphasis would be on doing what’s best for the kid.
Hopefully somebody at both the district, and state level, is paying attention. Things are hard enough now for students and schools, there is no need to make things even harder.
It also bears recognizing that EL populations are among the highest at risk to COVID infection. Many live in housing that holds multiple family members who work jobs that put them at an elevated exposure level. They already are overly exposed, it is needless to open them up for further exposure to a test when then are other options.
One last quick note here. It is worth noting that over the last decade, the percentage of the district’s black students has dropped from a previous high of 49% to its current level of 40%. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic students has grown from around 19% to its current level of 29%. It’s not hard to envision that within the next decade the number of Hispanic students will surpass the number of Black students.
The district has committed considerable resources to increase equity, and as a result, made admirable strides towards ensuring equitable opportunities for Black students – teacher recruitment, discipline policy. curriculum. While going forth that work must continue, it’s equally important that emphasis is also placed on the needs of Hispanic students.
That means increased efforts to recruit and promote Hispanic teachers and administrators. I believe that currently there are 2 Hispanic principals and maybe 2 high-ranking central office administrators in all of MNPS. That’s not adequate.
Adjusting WIDA protocols and procedures for this year would be a good step forward in securing equitable outcomes.
If you are curious about the breakdown in numbers when it comes to MNPS and virtual vs remote, Meghan Mangrum delivers a new piece in the Tennessean. It’s a bit of an eye-opener.
Equally interesting is a recent poll breaking down the number of teachers who would sign up for a Coronavirus vaccination once it was available. Per a study conducted by the Professional Educators of Tennessee of over 1400 educators, about 1/3 would take the vaccine. J.C. Bowman, executive director of the group sums it up,
“This is a difficult time for our educators and opinions still may change. However, most respondents think teachers are essential and want the vaccine to be offered but not required. They don’t think there has been enough testing on the vaccine to assure that it is safe. Basically, no one thinks they should be forced to take it.”
In case you are wondering, based on MNPS self-developed COVID Tracker, today the district is at a 10 on a scale of 10 for the second consecutive day.
Former Nashville mayor Meagan Barry is now officially a writer, having signed on to produce a regular column for arcHIVE Nashville, a new culture-based essay magazine. Check out her first piece it’s a well-written doozy, titled Somebody’s Son.
Has anybody seen a Director’s Evaluation lying around anywhere? It was my understanding that an evaluation was supposed to be conducted regularly, you know that “only one employee” thing? Who’s in charge of this thing. Oh wait…it’s Dr. Gentry. Well, that explains why there hasn’t been a committee meeting scheduled since August 25th. So let me see if I got this straight, board members aren’t supposed to ask questions, but instead save them for an evaluation that seldom seems to arrive? Perhaps Dr. Gentry could practice a little less preaching and a little more delivery.
There has been a lot of talk about ensuring students have ample opportunity to engage in sports activities. Band and Drama opportunities are equally important. Due to current circumstances, both are likely to see a decline in participation next year and that doesn’t bode well for anyone. Make sure they are included in your advocacy efforts.
Congratulation to Hamilton County Superintendent Bryan Johnson for being named one of only four finalists for the 2021 National Superintendent of the Year award presented by AASA. Well done.
That’s a wrap.
If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.
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