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At the second event bringing together teachers, administrators, superintendents and members of the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) staff, there were no universal — or quick —answers to the struggling grades of county high school students. But that didn’t mean the participants in the convening didn’t take away a lot of ideas to take back to their districts.

This seminar followed a similar outline as the first on Oct. 27, when teachers, administrators and county education staff came together to discuss the alarming statistics and concerns about the mental health of students and teachers. At that time, in addition to discussions and “break out groups,” participants watched videos from students describing their challenges and fears.

At that first meeting, it was revealed that SCOE collected aggregate data from 10 high school districts in October 2020: Cloverdale, Cotati-Rohnert Park, Geyserville, Healdsburg, Petaluma, Sonoma Valley, Roseland, Santa Rosa, West Sonoma County and Windsor.

According to SCOE, the current high school enrollment for the 2020-21 school year is 19,201. Of those, 7,149 had one or more failing grades as of fall progress reports/first quarter grades in October 2020. In 2019-20, 19,038 students had a total of 5,125 students receiving a one or more F.

Percentage wise, across all high schoolers in the county, 37% currently have a failing grade, compared to 27% last year. Broken down by class, it appears ninth and 10th graders are having the hardest time, with 40% having at least one F, compared to 27% for ninth graders and 31% for 10th graders last year. Thirty-seven percent of 11th graders have at least one F compared to 27% last year. Seniors (12th graders) have the best scores, with a 31% failing rate, compared to 23% last year.

Two of the districts, Cotati-Rohnert Park and Geyserville, were outliers, showing fewer failing grades than in the previous year, but both of those districts are using a different style of curriculum, with students taking only three courses a semester, rather than the five or six of the other districts, which means fewer potential grades to get.

Attendees at the media briefing for this convening included Lamar Collins, principal at Windsor High School; Brandy Raymond, curriculum and assessment coordinator for Roseland Charter; Chris Vanden Heuvel, Healdsburg superintendent; Diann Kitamura, Santa Rosa City Schools superintendent; Louis Ganzler, Principal at Rancho Cotati; Mayra Perez, superintendent of Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified; Hollie Retzinger, a teacher from Santa Rosa City Schools; Will Lyon from the Santa Rosa Teachers Association; Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools.

Because of their apparent success, the two representatives of Cotati-Rohnert Park, Ganzler and Perez joined the convening and shared their experience with a so-called “3x3 schedule.”

“The basic idea of a 3x3 is (that students) take classes three at a time, at a pace of what would normally take a year,” Ganzler said. “You reduce the number of students a teacher has from 150 to 75, and you reduce the number of teachers a student has from six to three. It has provided us the ability to cover the same material by the end of the year … but we have seen it’s taken an enormous amount of pressure off students and teachers.”

Both Decker and Vanden Heuvel, as well as Windsor High School principal Collins expressed interest in the idea, but said the problem with this, like many other ideas, is that it can require time and effort to implement, something most schools and teachers do not have in excess. Kitamura pointed out that an additional challenge would be that when students are able to return to school in a hybrid model, they are only allowed two cohorts per student, which would require significant re-jiggering if students on distance learning were in three.

Another topic of discussion was that notion of making alterations to the grading structure at the high school level, returning it to something more similar than what is utilized by public schools at the elementary level, known as proficiency grading.

“Typically, elementary school report cards you are assessed on how you are performing a specific skill,” Vanden Heuvel explained. “We’re discussing adopting that kind of mentality in secondary, so you honor growth and you’re focusing on skills students need to progress to the next level. It’s not about compliance or point systems that can be arbitrary and looking at very specific skills students need to master.”

However, none of these ideas can be rolled out immediately.

“We have to balance long-term changes,” Decker said. “We’ve discussed making immediate changes in the next two to three weeks, but (a lot of the things discussed) are all aspirational,  some stuff will take time. We have to balance that with figuring out the next few weeks to get wins for our students and figure out how to utilize this energy to create impactful change for our students.”

“The biggest obstacle is time,” agreed Vanden Heuvel. “We have staff that’s inspired and ready to go, but we have to create time for them to get ready to go … In the short term we’re looking at tweaking the schedule, discussing how to handle late work, how to create more connection through advisory periods,”

The superintendents all shared that were planning on doing a smaller version of this seminar within their districts, to help with implementation of the ideas shared at the meeting.

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