‘Not waiting until summer’: Adams 14 leaders try to get ninth graders back on track after more than half fail two or more classes

Students study in the Eagles Nest at Adams City High School Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.
Students studying at Adams City High School in February 2019. (Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post)

Across the country, most students struggled with remote learning, but among high school freshmen in the Adams 14 district, more than half failed two or more of their classes last fall. 

“Once they fail a class, they fall behind for four years,” said Ron Peterson, the high school turnaround specialist for MGT Consulting, the management company overseeing the district. “It has lots of consequences.”

Adams 14 students learned fully online last fall until some began returning in person in February. Remote learning for so long contributed to the failures of those core classes, leaders said, and they are hopeful that as they increase in-person instruction next month some of those students may be able to get back on track before the year ends.

“We’re not waiting until summer,” Peterson said. “It’s too late. We are not. Summers are for next steps.”

Although many schools have reported increases in students earning failing grades, nearby districts that shared comparable data did not see spikes as large as in Adams 14. Aurora Public Schools, for instance, recorded 20.7% of ninth grade students failing two or more classes in the fall, up from 18.4% the previous fall. In Adams 12, the number of students failing two courses climbed to 628 last fall, or about 21%, compared to 381 the previous year.

Even before COVID-19, Adams 14 leaders knew they needed to focus on incoming ninth graders. The high school has had several years of low state ratings and faces a timeline, just as the district does, to significantly improve student achievement. Leaders had decided one strategy would be to target ninth graders, after finding that many of the students who eventually drop out began high school on the wrong foot. In the fall of 2019, 14% of the ninth grade class had failed two or more courses. 

Just before the pandemic hit, the district had applied for and won a four-year $91,000 grant to offer a four-day freshman academy last fall and to track students at risk of dropping out. Failing two or more classes would be one of the measures to determine that risk.

The money would also help pay for parent training to help them understand how to help their children, and would pay for additional planning time for teachers. 

But the COVID pandemic and a switch to remote learning derailed the freshman academy. Planned outreach to parents moved from in person to virtual and remains a work in progress.

Adams 14 did launch a program last fall for ninth graders and will expand it next year to eighth and 10th graders. The program, called AVID, is a national nonprofit that trains teachers to help students who may become the first in their family to attend college. Usually students will take AVID as an elective class where they connect with an AVID teacher and learn things such as note-taking skills, or social and emotional skills. 

Peterson said he has seen a strong correlation between lack of engagement or attendance and failure rates, though he said some of the failed classes also represent students who turned in work that wasn’t up to standards. 

At the beginning of the year district staff made house calls to reach out to more than 100 students who had been identified as the most in need of help to prevent them from dropping out.

But Peterson said that the district had trouble locating so many of them that it had to identify and focus on a new set of students. Principal Paul Sandos said that over the course of the year, the school has learned that many students did move away or transfer, but others remain unengaged. 

Peterson wants to bring them back into schools in person. Although online learning remains a popular option for many families in Adams 14, Peterson believes many students won’t get back on track until they can be in classrooms at school.

“What I have experienced is that there’s nothing that replaces that relationship piece with the kids in a classroom,” Peterson said. “That engagement piece is critical.”

Right now, at the high school, approximately 1,000 students are attending school in person part time, while about 700 students have chosen to stay fully online.

And while leaders have been working with teachers who are teaching remotely, “it takes time to support teachers who have never taught online,” he said.

This semester, the district rolled out a mandatory ninth period for all ninth and 10th graders, virtually and in person, where students either catch up on work they’re falling behind on, or try to recover credits they’ve missed earning. Once students are caught up, they may join a club or a career program class. 

So far, Sandos said students have recovered 47 ninth-grade F’s. More than 100 students are redoing work to earn higher grades.

Peterson said he is counting on the culture changes that Sandos is rolling out to be one of the more important changes to eventually turn things around for the high school. MGT had just hired Sandos to lead Adams City High School last spring, before the pandemic shut down schools. 

With teachers, the culture shift involves making sure they know how to help students without lowering expectations for them. With parents and students it’s about getting them to understand more about what they need to do to graduate high school. 

Sandos set a goal of having staff make four calls per month to the parents of each ninth grader to make sure the parents are aware of how their child is doing, whether that’s good or bad. Engagement through parent coffee meetings, virtually, has grown steadily from about eight parents initially, to now more than two dozen joining regularly.

And now that students are actually coming into the school building, Sandos is making a point of asking every one he sees in the hallway: How many credits do you have?

It’s a simple question that leaders in Adams 14 have wanted students to know off the top of their heads. How many credits do they still need to be able to graduate? Are they on track?

“To invest in yourself, you have to make goals,” Sandos said. 

And to have attainable goals, students must know where they stand.

“They have to be aware of what they need to do and why,” he said.

Getting students to take more ownership of their learning is something that Adams 14 district leaders had planned on drilling in since last year. Although the progress may be slower because of the pandemic, Sandos said students are still getting there.

“A lot of kids are getting that now,” Sandos said. “But we’re still energizing them.”

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