Two weeks into the new school year, Vashon teachers, students, and administrators are getting into the groove of online education, overcoming challenges, and finding new ways to connect and learn.
So said school district superintendent Slade McSheehy and the principals of Vashon’s schools, in presentations at the Sept. 10 meeting of the Vashon School Board meeting, held on Zoom.
Rebecca Goertzel, who is principal of Chautauqua Elementary, said her school had a chaotic but good start of school, and that she had received many positive comments from parents and teachers.
“The teachers are shocked that they are feeling connection, and they feel it is working,” she said, adding that her staff was reaching out to get every family engaged, and had done home visits to deliver school materials.
Goertzel acknowledged that four families in her school were still struggling with internet connectivity, but said a team was working with them to address the problems. There had also been outreach to the school’s Spanish-speaking families and Comunidad Latina de Vashon, a grassroots advocacy group serving that community, to make sure their needs were met, she said.
School Board Chair Reagan Sparks also chimed in with congratulations for the district’s launch of online learning.
Sparks said she had observed her own children’s online learning while working at home and was encouraged by what she had seen. She praised teachers for their work and thanked administrators for supporting the teachers with training and technology.
“…I think we’re off to a pretty good start, and no matter what anybody thinks of the reopening plan one way or the other, I know that our teachers are breathing life and love into that plan every day and they are making our kids feel seen and welcome and accepted and giving them a sense of normal, and getting their education back on track,” she said.
In their presentations, McMurray Middle School Principal Greg Allison and Vashon High School Principal Danny Rock acknowledged challenges both in terms of tech and connectivity issues for some students as well as attendance issues for other students.
“What our staff is navigating right now is to find a balance in [our] 80-minute class periods,” Allison said, saying that teachers were helping students build stamina for virtual education. He also said his school had conducted a “temperature check” survey with all of its students, to help teachers understand each student’s individual needs.
The meeting’s agenda reflected the district’s packed workload of the past month, since McSheehy first unveiled plans, on Aug. 13, for what has become a controversial online learning plan for students at McMurray and Vashon High School to move from semesters to a quarters schedules, with non-continuous learning in core subject areas including math and languages.
McSheehy, Sparks and Rock have since explained the decision as an equity move. The lighter daily class schedule, they said, would benefit those, including Vashon’s Latino community, who have the hardest time engaging with online education.
At a board meeting on Aug. 13, Comunidad Latina de Vashon members, in a video appeal, asked for other specific equity measures including tutoring, translation of school materials into Spanish for students in Spanish-language-only homes, and technological support. Both last spring and again this fall, the group has enlisted its own tech support network through Geeking Out Kids of Color (GOKiC), an organization that works to empower kids of color through education in computer science and technology, but said more help from the district was needed.
Thursday’s board meeting began, as have others since the decision to move to the quarters system, with public comments taking issue with the plan.
Terri Vickers, a district parent to students at McMurray and VHS, said more privileged students were better able to mitigate the drawbacks of the quarters schedule.
“To bridge the learning gaps, families are choosing alternate schools, providing paid tutors, purchasing additional texts and online supports, and creating study groups,” Vickers wrote. “Many of these supports are inaccessible to most families. Sadly, it appears that the current quarter scheduled has effectively increased inequity.”
Vickers asked the administration and board to take action to provide promised educational supports and equitable opportunities for all students.
Another islander, Kali Aguilera, also wrote a letter calling for the district to “truly prioritize racial equity and social justice” in the district.
Later in the meeting, VHS Principal Danny Rock, addressed mitigation efforts for the quarters system, acknowledging criticism of the plan. Students were being offered a “directed study” credit, which could be used as needed to supplement time studying course material not offered in the off-quarter, he explained.
But he said there wasn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution for every student. Teachers, he said, would need to work individually with students to assess needs for additional off-quarter study in math, science and other courses.
He suggested that parents speak directly to their children’s teachers in those subject areas about their concerns, and follow up with him or Greg Alison directly if their questions were not answered by the teachers.
Other news from the school board included:
Enrollment is down
McSheehy said that enrollment in the Vashon School District is currently down by approximately 14 students and that approximately 30 students have transferred to FamilyLink. The state allocates $10,000 per full-time student in the district, but only $8,6701 for Family Link students. McSheehy estimated a budget hole of approximately $170,000 given decreased full-time enrollment and the shifts to FamilyLink.
ECEAP Preschool to start in person when the smoke clears
The Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) bilingual preschool at Chautauqua was scheduled to begin in-person classes this week but is currently holding off on welcoming students until air quality improves. The preschool serves not only Latino students but also other vulnerable island families. Recently, Comunidad Latina won a $30,000 grant to support the preschool.
Sally Adam, who is a family support specialist for the preschool, said that the preschool has divided its class into two small groups that will meet for half-day sessions four days a week. Breakfast and lunch are included as well as family support, health screenings and parent education. There are four additional slots available for students who meet eligibility requirements. Interested parents can call Chautauqua at 206-463-2882 or Adams directly at 206-218-9545.
Mental health assessments of students are taking place
Chautauqua students in grades 2 to 5 will be assessed through SAEBRS (Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener), which Principal Goertzel called a “brief and efficient tool for universal screening of student risk for social-emotional and behavioral problems for students in Grades K through 12.” McMurray and VHS students will be assessed through the “Check Yourself” screener from Tickit Health and utilized as a part of the Best Starts For Kids King County grant.
In a public comment submitted to the board meeting, Valerie Harrington, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with many island families, addressed the issue of increased mental health problems for children during the pandemic.
“Mental health has been identified as one of the rationales for the shift to an alternating quarter system and as a reason for providing additional socio-emotional support during the school day,” she wrote. “However, when I asked what mental health professionals were consulted in making this plan, I was told ‘none.’ When I asked what professional research supported these choices, I was told, ‘there is no research for this situation.’” She urged the district to do more to flesh out what she called its well-intentioned approach.
In-person instruction for special education students
The district is still working out the details for small groups of less than five students with IEP (individualized learning plans) to meet for limited in-person instruction at the school.
Labor agreements are signed
The district has signed memorandums of understanding with both Vashon Education Association and Vashon Education Support Personnel. One notable provision of the agreements, McSheehy said, is the stipulation that the district provides its draft plan for hybrid or on-site instruction no later than four weeks prior to the transition. To this end, McSheehy said, he had asked a special task force, made up of members of the school’s volunteer reopening team, to work out the details of the hybrid plan as soon as possible.
Board discusses resolution
The board discussed resolution No. 786, a policy suggested by WSSDA (Washington State School Directors’ Association) to all school districts, which would enable the “…District Superintendent or designee to suspend board policies if such suspension is necessary to implement the adopted reopening plan or is necessary for ongoing compliance with written guidance from the Department of Health, the Department of Labor and Industries, or the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction relating to safely reopening schools while containing COVID-19.”
In discussing the resolution, McSheehy and board members noted that a similar resolution was passed in the spring, and not used. The new resolution was strictly related to the reopening of schools according to state requirements and could not be used carte blanche by the superintendent, they said.
Board member Bob Hennessey suggested adding an amendment to the resolution to stipulate that the Superintendent would inform the board as soon as possible in the event of the suspension of any policy. The resolution will be voted on at the next board meeting.