Recent progress reports for Santa Maria Joint Union High School students reveal unusually low grades during distance learning

Joseph Graack, a parent and social science teacher at Righetti High School, estimates that over the past four years of teaching economics he’s given out maybe two failing grades. But so far this semester, he has “well over 30” students who are failing, despite this being “the most work I’ve ever put into a school year,” Graack said. He’s been a teacher for 25 years.

click to enlarge Recent progress reports for Santa Maria Joint Union High School students reveal unusually low grades during distance learning
STRUGGLING TO PASS : Students enrolled in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District—which includes Righetti High School, Pioneer Valley High School, Delta High School, and Santa Maria High School (pictured)—are earning record low grades so far this semester.

The unprecedented academic struggle that Graack’s students are facing during distance learning is happening district-wide. According to a bar graph presented at an Oct. 13 Santa Maria Joint Union High School District (SMJUHSD) school board meeting, Sept. 25 progress reports revealed that there are nearly four times as many failing grades as there were the same time last year. Meanwhile, the number of A’s and B’s have dropped significantly.

In a student survey conducted by the district, also presented at the Oct. 13 board meeting, 82 percent of students said they wished school was being held on campus and 48 percent rated their stress levels as a 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5.

In an effort to address both the failing grades and student survey results, the district released a Distance Learning Response Plan on Oct. 22. One element of the plan was a Wellness Week from Oct. 26 to 30, during which teachers were asked to give no new content or assignments. 

Teachers were also instructed to accept late work and were encouraged to allow students to retake tests.

“Basically, we need to throw everything we can against the wall and see what’s going to stick,” Graack said. “I think it does provide hope to some of those students who maybe have suffered emotionally or just don’t feel connected.”

Righetti English and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher Kim Karamitsos told the Sun that the Wellness Week was a step in the right direction for her students. 

“It was something that we definitely needed,” Karamitsos said. “Some of the kids have gotten far behind already, and it just kept piling on, so some of them had just sort of given up.”

But Graack said there’s still a large number of his students who are unaccounted for.

“Out of those [with] F’s, probably two-thirds of those students are who we classify as unengaged,” Graack said. “Basically, they’re not showing up to class, and they’re not turning in work.”

Graack believes part of the problem is rooted in poor communication. He thinks the district should mail out physical copies of students’ progress reports to their homes. Right now, progress reports are only sent out electronically, Graack said.

“You would get a lot better response,” Graack said.

At the Oct. 13 school board meeting, district Assistant Superintendent John Davis said that SMJUHSD is working to connect with disengaged or absent students.

“Our site administrative teams, our site counseling teams, our outreach people, our teachers are working with students and parents,” Davis said. “They’re using the phones, they’re using home visits, they’re using one-on-one tutoring and assistance, they’re using counseling—it’s been an ‘all hands on deck’ effort to improve student outcomes since those grades came out.”

Graack said he has personally made more than 6,300 communications, including emails and phone calls, to students and their parents this semester. But there are still many students he is unable to connect with.

“Out of my 30-plus F’s that I have so far, I still can’t account for 65 percent of those kids,” Graack said. “Have they moved out of the district? Have they gone to another school? That’s where the system at Righetti has broken down.”

The Sun reached out to SMJUHSD Superintendent Antonio Garcia for further comment, but did not receive a response before press time.

Katrina MacKinnon, a senior at Righetti, said the online learning schedule has proven difficult to balance at times. Students have just one 80-minute instructional period for each class every week. 

MacKinnon has Zoom instruction on Wednesdays and Fridays, but on the other days it’s up to her to structure her day.

“It can be kind of hard to juggle everything,” she said. “Usually when I’m at school, the homework that the teacher assigned to us would be due the next day. But now that we’re only meeting the teachers once a week, you have to remember when everything is due for each class.”

MacKinnon said that at the start of the semester, she had more schoolwork than previous years when she was enrolled in more classes. 

“In the beginning of the semester, I had way more homework as a senior taking five classes than a sophomore taking seven,” MacKinnon said. “However, as the year’s been going by I’ve seen teachers give out less and less homework. … Right now I have a reasonable amount.”

The Distance Learning Response Plan seeks to address some of these challenges by encouraging teachers to factor in how long an assignment might take as part of the instructional day.

“Students must receive a minimum of four hours of daily instruction Monday through Friday. The four hours can be met by any combination of teacher instruction (Zoom or non-Zoom) and ‘time value’ of work assigned,” the district stated in the response plan. “Teachers have been asked to recalibrate their assignments so that they are spread out across the week, with time values that are limited and reasonable.”

County Supervisor-elect Bob Nelson, who currently has three children in high school, has seen both sides of the pandemic learning equation. Two of his kids go to St. Joseph High School, a private high school that Nelson said has brought most of its students back to in-person learning. Nelson’s other child goes to Righetti. He would have liked to have seen Righetti adopt a hybrid model after the state’s reopening system allowed for it.

“If I was in a perfect world, I’d be having kids back maybe one day a week on alternating schedules, really spreading out so that you have some kind of relationship that can be built between instructors and their students,” Nelson said. “I think what you’re seeing is a lack of accountability, and that’s why we’re seeing the F’s that we are.”

At the Oct. 13 board meeting, Superintendent Garcia said that the spread of COVID-19 in Santa Maria was too substantial to warrant a safe return to physical classrooms in 2020. Santa Maria and other parts of North County have consistently seen more cases than South County throughout the pandemic. 

“In order to assess how safe it is to return to in-person instruction in our district, we must look more closely to our local metrics, meaning here in Santa Maria,” Garcia said.

School board member Dominick Palera agrees that the district did the right thing to keep students at a distance for this semester, though he hopes a transition back to campus occurs soon.

“I think we have to start looking at transitioning to that hybrid,” Palera said. “I’m anticipating and I’m hoping that we can open at least as a hybrid when we come back in January [to] get the kids face-to-face time with their teachers.”

As challenging as distance learning has been at times, senior MacKinnon is making the most of it.

“I work at a coffee shop and play volleyball, so this is more flexible,” she said. “It allows me to spend a little bit more time outside of school.”

MacKinnon added that she’s grateful to her teachers for being supportive during a challenging time.

“I applaud the school staff for trying to make it work,” she said. “Teachers understand that students are going through a hard time. … I think that teachers don’t get enough credit.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at [email protected].

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