With more than 1,600 high school students failing in one or more classes, Fort Smith Public Schools implemented a custom academic improvement plan to get students back on track so they could graduate or move on to the next grade.
At the end of the first quarter of the school year, 1,763 students in Northside and Southside high schools (56% of the student population) had an F in one or more classes. That was a large jump from the 513 or 16% of the students who had an F in one or more classes at the end of the first quarter in 2019. On Nov. 16, that number had dropped to 1,691 (53%), but the number was still too high.
FSPS administrators knew they had to do something. On Dec. 7 both high schools held an “On Track Day” for any high school student at risk for failure in one or more classes (a failing grade is 59 or lower). The day was designed for these students to develop a custom academic improvement plan with an advisor or teacher.
On that day, there were 1,545 students (49%) failing in one or more classes, said Dr. Ginni McDonald, FSPS director of secondary education. On Monday (Dec. 14), that number had dropped even more with 1,234 students (39%) failing one or more classes, she said.
With numbers continuing to be higher than years past, FSPS is continuing the On Track program with a hotline that parents or students can call or text seven days a week to connect with a teacher to see what student can do to get back on track academically: Northside — (479) 222-8594; Southside — (479) 222-8598. And the district is reaching out with calls and emails to students family and home visits when needed, McDonald said.
Dr. Terry Morawski, incoming FSPS superintendent, said that while the district has succeeded in keeping a low transmission rate of the COVID-19 virus in schools during the ongoing pandemic, this year has been challenging in many ways. The transmission rate in the FSPS district hovers around 1%, he said, noting that it was 1.2% as of Monday.
“Too many students at our high schools are missing classes and failing one or more classes at this time. The On Track program in Northside and Southside high schools is designed to minimize the number of students who may need academic support in the spring. It will help them get back on track so they can graduate on time if they are senior or move to the next grade level if they are a sophomore or junior,” Morawski said at a city of Fort Smith press conference Tuesday (Dec. 15).
Part of the On Track plan of action is designed to help students complete missing assignments and working with parents of students. The biggest priority is to make sure students attend class. If they do, they can still pull up their grades, said Sara Williams, counselor at Southside High School.
“We want students to know if they need help in a class, or five classes for that matter, it’s OK. This is doable. We have been working the past couple of weeks with students on credit recovery,” Williams said. “We just need students to be at school. If they reach out to a teacher, a counselor or a principal, we are going to help them through this process. We are going to help monitor grades and progress. We have great teachers to help get them through this. It’s just not too late.”
During the fall semester, students at both high schools had the opportunity to participate in classes offered in a blended learning model of on-site instruction. This allowed students to listen to lectures, complete assignments at home and attend on-site classes when they believed they needed help with the material. It also gave them the flexibility to attend one, several or all classes during the school day.
That option has had very limited success, McDonald told FSPS board of education members in November. Therefore, the blended learning option will change for the spring semester. Blended Learning will only be available for current blended learning students who qualify. To qualify, they must have no grades below an 80% at the end of the first semester.
“Students may be provisionally approved for blended learning based on grades prior to the end of the semester, but be removed if their final grades include a grade that falls below 80%,” a news release from the district said.
Approved blended student’s grades will be reviewed regularly. If a student does not maintain grades of 70% or better in any class, he or she will be returned to a full face to face student and will not have the option to return to blended status, the news release said. Blended students who engage with the curriculum from home will be marked as “virtually present.” Blended students who do not engage with the curriculum will have an unexcused absence.
“Education is critical,” said Fort Smith Mayor George McGill at the press conference. “We are calling on our students to take advantage of all that is available to them and keep in mind that education is going to be key to your success.”