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Families, districts working to address the rise in failing grades this school year

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Posted at 10:03 PM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-20 00:03:25-05

PHOENIX — Districts across the state are seeing an increase in the number of students with at least one failing grade during the first semester of this school year, compared to 2019.

ABC15 spoke with one mom about the struggles her two high schoolers are facing. She's asked to use only her first name to respect their privacy.

"It is heartbreaking watching your children start to suffer and knowing that you cannot help them," said Amy. "My kids have never gotten below a B, ever, and now we are talking that we have Ds and Fs, so yeah it's really hard."

Amy's children are struggling in different ways to navigate ongoing transitions between in-person and virtual learning. Her daughter is now feeling crushed by the mounting pressure to catch up.

"You see those Ds come up and it's like you're in a pit that you can't get out of," she said. "I think that's what's really hard for her."

Similar frustrations and concerns flooding ABC15's Danielle Lerner's Facebook page. Parents detail doing what they can to support their kids academically and emotionally. Teachers are working daily to connect with students who either do not show up or just do not do the work.

Attendance, engagement and isolation are just a few of the many factors fueling a jump in failing grades.

"Some of it is technology but some of it is space, there are multiple age groups in the home and not a lot of space, and you need a quiet space," said Dr. Randy Mahlerwein, an area assistant superintendent with Arizona's largest school district, Mesa Public Schools.

"We're very concerned about our high school kids because you have those four years to accumulate a certain amount of credits and if you end up two or three credits deficient, then you have to make that up within the same year to keep them on track for graduation," he said.

Right now the district's data shows the percentage of elementary students with at least one F jumped 5 percent in the first quarter of this school year compared to 2019. It is up 3 percent in quarter two.

Meantime the percentage of junior high and high school students with at least one F, jumped 7 percent in the first semester, compared to 2019.

"They're pulling what students, that's the who, and they're pulling where are they deficient, what are they deficient in, and then we're looking at a competency-based approach," said Mahlerwein.

The district is using targeted supports and intervention programs. It is extending learning time from first semester into second, to help students get their grades up, and they used CARES Act money to buy mobile virtual instruction stations, to help teachers doing online and in person at the same time.

Data obtained by ABC15 shows several other districts are having similar conversations.

In Deer Valley Unified, the percentage of students with at least one F jumped roughly 4 percent first semester compared to 2019.

"We have to take care of our community now, but we also have to plan to take care of our community in the future," said Mahlerwein.

Looking at districts across the Valley, Peoria Unified is seeing increases in Fs for grades 3-12, but especially in middle and high schools. The number of ninth graders with a failing grade more than doubled during first semester this year compared to last.

The Alhambra Elementary School District has been remote since last spring, and while the number of Fs actually dropped for grades K-2 during first quarter this year compared to last, second quarter shows increases in all grades. The biggest jumps are in fifth, sixth and eighth grades.

Phoenix Union High School District has also been remote since March of 2020. Administrators say their overall failure rate increased 4 percent first semester compared to last year, especially in science and social studies.

In Chandler Unified, F grades are up in grades 1-12, with seventh and tenth graders seeing the biggest increase compared to first semester last year.

Gilbert Public Schools is seeing only a slight uptick in Fs for 7-12 compared to first semester 2019. The number actually decreased in grades 4-6, but overall enrollment was down too. First through third graders do not receive traditional letter grades so their data was not included.

Districts like Phoenix Union, Chandler Unified and Gilbert Public Schools tell ABC15 plans are already in place to continue additional academic supports throughout the summer to focus on learning gaps and credit recovery.

"It's just been really hard for my husband and I to sit here, we're just trying to support the best we can," said Amy. "It's taking a toll on them, not only with their grades, their grades have really, really dropped, and they're struggling to pass classes at this point, but also in their mental health."

If your child is struggling the state has an entire website dedicated to helping parents and caregivers navigate COVID-19 with their kids.

Click here for more information and a comprehensive list of local resources.