Students are struggling: Here is what WI schools are doing about it

Getting Wisconsin students back in the classroom is one thing; catching them up will be an even more challenging process.

That’s the consensus from school districts across the southeast portion of the state as they try to figure out how to measure where students are academically and how to make up for what they lost during pandemic learning.

FOX6 requested student performance data from Kenosha Unified School District, Milwaukee Public Schools, Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District, Oconomowoc Area School District, Racine Unified School District, Sheboygan Area School District, Waukesha School District, Wauwatosa School District, West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, and West Bend School District. 

The records show, to varying extents, student grades in the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year taking a hit in all ten districts, even the ones that offered fully in-person learning options early on in the semester. 

All school districts eventually answered FOX6’s questions about how they plan to help students who have struggled through pandemic learning, except for Wauwatosa. A district spokesperson declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview; school board president Eric Jessup-Anger would only say the board would be hearing from the district team in May regarding future "plans for accelerated learning."

"It’s not like flipping a switch," Oak-Creek Franklin Joint School District superintendent Dan Unertl said. "It isn’t just because we’re back five days a week that everything is better...everybody knows we have our work cut out for us."

Summer school

All nine school district administrators who spoke to FOX6 mentioned plans for expanding summer school options this year. 

While some teachers may leave struggling students’ grades "open" at the end of the year until they complete the summer school course, the programs the districts described are not mandatory; that means getting families, many of whom feel burned out from navigating shifting learning models, on board. 

"I personally don’t like that idea," Waukesha parent Stacy Keene said. "I think these kids need a mental break from all this craziness and division."

"We need to focus on allowing them to do the things that we’ve taken away from them," Kenosha Unified School District parent Eric Meadows said. "We haven’t had proms, we haven’t let them go to football games, we haven’t been able to hold graduation ceremonies. All these things that kids look forward to their whole lives we’ve taken away this year."

"There are things where they can really ignite passions and reconnect with their peers that I think will seem like a break," Racine Unified School District Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jannell Decker said.

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RUSD, KUSD, Sheboygan, and Waukesha school districts told FOX6 they want their summer programming to bring back interactions students missed, like art, sports, music - in the case of RUSD, even improv classes.

"All those kinds of things that connect kids to the school and give them a purpose for being there,"  Waukesha Superintendent Dr. Jim Sebert said.

MPS, West Bend, Oconomowoc, and Oak Creek-Franklin talked about expanding class options; for example, MPS superintendent Dr. Keith Posley says summer school will have adjusted hours in an attempt to attract more high school students who work during the day.

West Allis-West Milwaukee decided to revamp its summer program after looking at the data. Public records show more students failed classes in the fall during virtual learning; average GPA, however, improved.

"We have some students who are spending more time on the classes that they really, really enjoy and not as much time on the classes that they aren’t quite as passionate about," Director of Leadership and Learning Deidre Roemer said. 

"Left to kind of their own time management a bit, students will pick and choose what they really want to work on vs the things that maybe they aren’t quite as interested in," Roemer continued. "And then it becomes kind of our job to say, ‘OK, how do we get them connected to all the different subject areas as best we can?’"

WAWM will shift its summer program to a more project-based model, using activities like beekeeping and baking to help teach and reinforce science and math concepts. 

"The learners who are feeling unsuccessful or disconnected from school don’t need more of the same right now," Roemer said.

What happens in the fall?

"It can’t just be summer, and it can’t just be the school year," Sheboygan Area School District superintendent Seth Harvatine said. "We have to have multiple options to support all of our learners."

It was already difficult to measure where students were academically before the pandemic suspended several traditional measures of standardized testing. In the fall, families will notice school districts giving their children more assessments, many within the first few weeks of school. 

Each of the nine school districts also talked about expanding mental health support and opportunities for one-on-one help. For example, during virtual and hybrid learning, several districts used Wednesdays for small-group instruction and staff "check-ins" with students to discuss their progress, areas of difficulty, and opportunities for support. Sheboygan, RUSD, MPS, Waukesha, and WAWM specifically mentioned plans to keep similar options available during in-person learning.

"I think there could be an opportunity at looking a little bit at how we teach students, and not that it has to be the whole class all the time in front of us, but rather, ‘How can we provide that support to smaller groups or individuals when they need it?’" Waukesha South High School instructional coach Alyssa Behrendt said.

While some families and educators may decide it’s beneficial to have certain students repeat a grade, school districts are reluctant to take that route on a large scale. Studies show holding a student back can have short-term positive effects on reading and math, but can also increase the odds that student will drop out. 

Wisconsin’s Department of Instruction also warns against the "remediation trap," when classes go back and exclusively focus on what was missed in the last year’s learning.

"If we do that, what we’re going to end up doing is creating even bigger gaps because students won’t have access to the grade-level learning," DPI director of teaching and learning Tamara Mouw said. "What we can do is fill any missed learning in with that grade-level learning."

All nine districts that spoke to FOX6 mentioned plans to integrate review of older material in with new instruction.

"And so still keeping the high expectations and pushing students into where they need to be by the end of the school year, with constant re-teaching and support," Behrendt trailed off with a laugh. "We are always keeping kids at the front, but it’s a lot, yeah."

What do the students want?

High school students tell FOX6 they often feel left out of discussions about how to best help them rebound from a year of pandemic learning.

"I would have them reach out to us more and ask what students need out of them more," RUSD senior Hailey Mattek said. 

Mattek said unreliable school laptops are an example of a seemingly-small problem that can snowball into bigger obstacles if districts aren’t actively and regularly soliciting student feedback.

"[Feedback] means a better education and better resources for us to have a smooth pathway to graduate instead of a bumpy road of gravel," Mattek said. 

"I would just like more open communication," Waukesha North High School freshman Allison Wadd agreed. "Instead of just saying, ‘We know these are very difficult times,’ and then giving us a bunch of work."

KUSD and West Allis-West Milwaukee high school students Emma Meadows and Izabella Barrera say they’d like to see an end to block scheduling.

"Because you get to see more people then, and you get to see all of your teachers," Meadows said. "If you have issues with teachers or missing assignments or anything, you can see them that day - you don’t have to wait several days to see them or talk to them."

"And that way we could have some more human interaction," Barrera said. "Because that’s something we really missed out on this past year."

"With more student input, we could definitely change how we do things, or how we’re doing things now, to make it better for our education," Barrera added.

Interactive map

Summer school by district

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