Vancouver Public Schools details in-person learning plans for 953 at-risk students

Academic pods of four students to one adult will help students at risk of falling behind

VANCOUVER — Starting on Jan. 7, Vancouver Public School students who are at risk of not graduating will have the chance to return to classrooms in the district’s 21 schools.

The plan, as outlined this week during a school board work session, would have up to four students per adult, with paraeducators and other classified staff returning to help supplement the current work of teachers.

Vancouver Public Schools will bring more than 950 at-risk students back to in-person classes starting Jan. 7. File photo
Vancouver Public Schools will bring more than 950 at-risk students back to in-person classes starting Jan. 7. File photo

Students would be in class two days a week, with Wednesday as a remote learning day. Classes would be from 8:30 – 11:30 a.m. for most schools.

Charlotte Pellens, the district’s director of categorical programs said their intervention specialists have been working to identify and contact the families of students who are falling behind or not engaging with online classes.

They identified 520 elementary students, 132 middle schoolers, and 301 in high school who were interested in returning to classrooms.

“We had less than five percent of our families decline this offer,” said Pellens. “I think that shows the interest that our families have at this point.”

Andy Meyer, principal at Skyview High School, said the students they’ll be serving in so-called “at risk pods” will largely be English Language Learners (ELL), students experiencing homelessness, and others who have been identified as academically at risk.

“We have 10 initial pods of students coming into the building to engage in this opportunity,” said Meyer. “They’ll have access to reliable wifi, a structured learning space, and they’ll be able to attend their normal classes and have one-on-one support.”

Vancouver Public Schools, like many districts across the state and around the country, have seen troubling trends when it comes to students struggling with distance learning.

High school students in the district earning at least one failing grade rose from 17 percent in the first semester of last year, to 50 percent this year, said Jim Gray, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

“Looking specifically at the senior class, we see that emerging bilingual students who received an F rose to nearly 70 percent,” Gray said. “That’s a 30 percent increase from last year.”

Gray said many of the students falling furthest behind are those considered farthest from “educational justice.” Usually minorities, homeless students, or those for whom English is a secondary language.

“At the secondary level, on top of the small pods being brought in in January, every building in Vancouver Public Schools, including elementary, is expected to have ongoing and intensive tiered interventions for their students,” Gray said.

That will include ongoing outreach to students who aren’t engaging in education, as well as more support for students who are engaging but still falling behind.

“We need to get them reengaged before we lose them completely,” said Bobbi Geenty, principal at Marshall Elementary School. “We had a mom come in today, and she was in tears. She was so excited that we had invited her student to come back, because she said she just can’t do it anymore. The fight is too much for her.”

To support those efforts, the district plans to continue bringing furloughed classified staff back, with the goal of having everyone back to work by the end of next month.

The district’s decision came during the same week Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal announced revised guidelines for when school districts can begin in-person instruction.

Under the new guidelines, counties with more than 350 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents during the previous 14-day period can still begin phasing in in-person learning for pre-K through 3rd Grade. If a school system demonstrates the ability to limit transmission, grades 4-5 could move to in-person learning.

“The system simply doesn’t work for too many kids,” Keydal said Wednesday, “not for its inability to reach hard to families, but because you’re asking 1.2 million young people to be independent learners.”

A district spokesperson said Thursday that their agreement with the Vancouver Education Association regarding when teachers would be asked to come back to classrooms would “use the information from OSPI and the governor’s office,” along with the Department of Health and Clark County Public Health “in determining our mode of operation.”

Leaders in the district were still examining the updated guidance and planned to meet with county health officials to further discuss how it might change or modify the existing plans.

Board members urge caution

While generally enthused by the idea of bringing more students back into classrooms, several board members urged caution after hearing feedback from kindergarten teachers, many of whom have felt overwhelmed with trying to balance the needs of their in-person and online-only students.

“What we’re currently asking our kindergarten teachers to do is too much,” said Director Kathy Decker. “And if we’re going to use this as a model for how we roll out first grade and … second grade into hybrid, it’s not okay.”

Another concern, said Director Kyle Sproul, is that first and second-grade teachers who hear from their kindergarten counterparts about how intense the workload is may be less willing to come back without a solution in place.

“I just want to make sure that we are supporting remote learning,” she said. “Not just for our families, but to ensure that we’re not burning out our teachers and then we don’t get to keep adding grades on.”

Assistant Superintendent Mike Stromme said they currently have five kindergarten teachers who are on paid leave, and are looking into ways they might be used, along with classified staff, to help take some of the burden off of teachers currently balancing in-person and remote learning students.

The goal, at least initially, will be to keep students with the teachers they currently have. If those teachers are unable to return to a physical classroom, the students would at least have a trained adult in the building to get them connected and make sure they’re plugging into classes, completing assignments, and getting questions answered.

Director Camara Banfield added that she’s heard from many parents of kindergarten students who have returned to in-person learning.

“All of them have said that their kids’ lives have improved since they got back into the classroom, all of them,” said Banfield. “They may not like the days they don’t have in the classroom, but all of them have said it’s changed the way their kids are.”