Middle schoolers failing at an increased rate is not a problem specific to Owensboro, and it’s not due to a lack of effort from teachers, parents or children. The pandemic and lack of consistent in-person learning has just caused even greater difficulties in what was already the hardest age group to engage.
It was announced Thursday during a Board of Education meeting that roughly 40% of middle school students at Owensboro Public Schools are failing at least one class after the first nine weeks — compared to just 15% at this point last year.
That trend can be seen across the region and even nationally. OPS Public Information Officer Jared Revlett said Friday that Superintendent Matthew Constant is involved with regional and national superintendent groups to discuss various topics.
During Thursday’s board meeting, Constant noted that another district in the region reported a failure rate of more than 60%.
Middle schoolers failing at a higher rate is a top concern nationally, Revlett said.
“It’s an issue that’s not specific to OPS. This is an issue that people are talking about across the country,” Revlett said. “It hits home more in our region when (Constant is) talking to those school districts and hearing that they’re on similar levels of student engagement.”
Making the news more difficult to swallow is that teachers have gone to extra efforts to help students succeed. It’s simply a lot to overcome when children aren’t in the classroom five days a week.
“We’re trying hard and it just kind of looks like we’re dropping the ball and I really don’t feel like we are,” said Mark Kahn, OMS physical education teacher/coach. “I’ve talked to several teachers who take time throughout their day — on their planning period, on their lunches — and they will go out and talk to students that aren’t online.”
Some teachers conduct door-to-door visits to make sure their students get online. Or they’ll let parents know that a student isn’t online, then ask for feedback and find ways to offer help such as getting access to the internet.
In some classrooms with two educators, one teacher will lead online learning and another will call the students that are not online or reach out to the parents to let them know.
“There’s so many efforts throughout our staff that are working hard, going above and beyond trying to get the kids to get online, to communicate with parents and let them know it is important for them to get on there,” Kahn said. “A lot of parents are very supportive.”
Revlett said students’ success is always reliant on a partnership between the school and parents/guardians, but that has been accentuated this year.
“I know that being virtual places a burden on families at home, but we still need our parents to stay engaged as well in their child’s education and work with the schools to make sure they have everything they need,” he said. “It’s really a combination of everybody in the community working together to make this as successful as possible.”
As far as why the failure rate jumped so much, officials don’t think there’s any one specific answer.
“The age group is tough,” Kahn said. “You have elementary kids that really are eager to get on and their minds are different, then you have high school kids who are a little more grown up and understand the importance of wanting to move on or graduate. I think middle school kids are kind of right in the middle, and I think that could be a factor of why we have a growing number of Fs.”
He added, “I do think that when you don’t have middle school kids in front of you face-to-face, their mind tends to wander in different directions. When they have the freedom to get online virtually or not get online virtually, they’re not always going to make the greatest decision.”
It doesn’t help that many parents are having to work rather than stay home, leaving the children to be held accountable for themselves.
“Some of it has to do with just that we have really worked on holding our kids accountable for doing what they’re asked,” Kahn said. “If they are not turning in their work and if they are not meeting their deadlines, then unfortunately they do get a zero. … I think that our teachers are continuing to do what they’re supposed to do and try to teach middle school kids the importance of accountability and being where you’re supposed to be, whether it’s online or whether it’s in person.”
Plus, they are simply missing a personal connection that is crucial in the learning process at that age. At the end of some of his virtual classes, some of Kahn’s students stay online just to talk.
“They just want to have that communication,” he said. “They want to talk, they want to show me their dog, they want to tell me what they’re going to do over the weekend. I think our kids are really just missing that one-on-one connection that we can give them face-to-face that we can’t over virtual.”
Though he mostly addressed the issue from an educator’s perspective, Kahn also has firsthand experience as a parent with a middle schooler.
While he can help his elementary-age son with schoolwork, the material for his middle school-age daughter is tougher.
“For me as a parent, I struggle with sometimes knowing the information that my daughter needs help with,” he said. “I’m an educator and I have a college degree, but I have trouble with helping her.”
It’s not an easy time for educators — or the parents and students, for that matter.
“It takes a village, so it’s not just one parent or one teacher,” Kahn said. “It takes everybody to give your child a good quality education. I’m never going to ever blame a parent or a guardian for anything that has to do with their child’s education. Trying to balance a child learning virtually and going to work, and then trying to get the kids the help they need when they get home can sometimes be overwhelming.”
Revlett added that educators have been dealing with ever-changing circumstances for about nine months now.
“Our teachers are going above and beyond to try to connect with these kids. Everybody knows that there’s no substitute for in-person learning,” he said. “We are in the process of really looking at the structure of what virtual learning looks like. It’s something that’s adapted and evolved. We’re looking at different ways that we can ensure that students are engaged and getting that quality instruction from teachers.”
The failure rate is not specific to Owensboro’s middle schools. But the teachers and administrators here aren’t going to let that stop them from putting all their efforts into finding a solution
“Our kids aren’t just numbers on a piece of paper,” Kahn said. “It’s personal to us. We love our kids. We see them as our own.”