Last week, as the countdown quickened toward the opening day of school, parents continued to express concerns about the Vashon School District’s controversial decision to switch its implementation of online school from a semester calendar to one based on school quarters.
The new plan requires middle and high school students to cycle through their required classes and electives attending only three classes per quarter, with classes in math, science and languages not taught in consecutive nine-week quarters.
The decision was announced in emails to parents on Aug. 13 — just hours before a school board meeting where the plan was also publicly discussed for the first time ever with board members. But even given the short time span, district parents still mobilized to submit a cascade of public comments to be read at the Aug. 13 meeting. Most voiced strong opposition to the plan, with three comments in favor of the plan and 20 against.
And during Zoom Q&A sessions held last week for parents at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School, as well as at another school board meeting held on Aug. 27, islanders continued to press for answers about the switch.
Among the public comments to the Aug. 27 board meeting was a letter signed by 27 local parents and grandparents, calling for the administration and the board to take more time to address the plan’s impact on learning loss in the “off” quarters for core subjects, as well as its effects on students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs), those in English Language Learner (ELL) programs, and those taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes in math and science.
The letter also criticized the process by which VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy, school principals and other district administrators had reached their decision.
“We are deeply concerned that a lack of family engagement in this process is likely to lead many to withdraw enrollment from VISD, further impacting all our students,” the letter said.
School enrollment is a significant factor in the funding of school districts in Washington, with the state allocating $10,000 per student in each district.
During the Aug. 27 meeting, board member Bob Hennessey asked McSheehy how district enrollment was currently shaping up for the fall — pointing out that a loss of 50 students would put a $500,000 hole in VISD’s budget.
McSheehy said he estimated a loss of 30 to 50 students in the district — a number he said was on par with what other similarly-sized districts were expecting in the return to online school. He said he would know more on Friday, Sept. 4, when the district determined its first official enrollment count.
Any changes to the school’s budget caused by a dip in enrollment would come, he said, in consultation with the administration’s Budget Advisory Board — a group that includes a board member, representatives of labor groups at the school, leadership teams from each school, and district office administration.
During comments by individual board members at the meeting, member Toby Holmes apologized for what he described as a flawed process in the roll-out of the plan to move to the quarters system.
“It was a late decision, and as a board, we didn’t have the opportunity to really scrutinize it and understand the implications,” he said. “I think we underestimated the school community’s reaction and the concerns, and we painted ourselves into a corner not having the time to go through that.”
Holmes added that he would “feel more confident in this schedule if we had engaged the community sooner and had a more public discourse about it and could take actionable feedback.”
But at the meeting, school board chair Rheagan Sparks and McSheehy continued to defend the move to the quarters calendar as having been made to fulfill the school’s priorities for racial equity.
The discussion came after another public comment from district parent David Hackett, who objected to this justification for the plan, calling it “nonsensical and cynical.”
“If anything, kids who have a difficult time learning are harmed more, not less, from arbitrary two-month gaps in important subjects like math, science and languages,” Hackett wrote.
McSheehy, at the meeting, defined the plan as “a bold and ambitious decision” to reduce opportunity gaps for students of color and others who had experienced burnout in taking six online classes in the spring.
He said the decision to have fewer classes was made with the goal to “simplify, align and [make school more] sustainable” for both students and teachers.
Sparks agreed, saying the plan would provide a “super oversimplified” education in the fall.
“It’s not a matter of choosing the best academic model in terms of avoiding learning gaps,” she said. “It’s also about making sure we’re able to access as many of our students as possible and have time built into the system to address their needs.”
Sparks also said that she looked forward to the actual start of school — when what she called the “anxiety and debate” about the calendar switch that would give way to the actual roll-out of the plan.
“We’ll be getting away from some of this anxiety about what might happen on the quarters system — what might happen if someone falls through a crack, what might happen if a student can’t engage — we’ll be able to work with what is actually happening in real-time,” she said. “And if the quarter system turns out not to work for a majority of people we’re going to change it. But we’re going to adjust to what actually is happening and not be wondering what might be going to happen.”
At the meeting, McSheehy outlined another meeting he had, earlier in the week, with the leadership of Comunidad Latina, a grassroots group representing Vashon’s Latino community.
At the Aug. 13 board meeting, the group submitted a compilation of videos from Latino parents, with their own specific requests for equity considerations from the district. These included tutoring and other daily supports for their children, the translation of school materials into Spanish so that parents could better assist their children with school work, the addition of a bilingual teacher to the Family Link program, and increased technical support for families with technology and WIFI gaps. The group also asked that the district hold regular discussions with Comunidad Latino to address the equity divide in Vashon schools.
McSheehy outlined how his administration was working toward meeting those goals, saying that twice-monthly meetings between the group and district were now planned. Bilingual support is now in place at Family Link, he added. He also said that the district would upgrade to a Zoom Pro account, which featured simultaneous translation, in multiple languages, of public meetings.
(Last week, a special Zoom Q&A took place for parents of Latino students at all three district schools, with Chautauqua Elementary principal Rebecca Goertzel either addressing the attendees directly in Spanish or translating for other administrators who did not speak Spanish.)
In terms of tutoring, McSheehy said an additional hire would need to be made.
“We would like individual tutoring to happen, but it takes a bilingual coordinator,” he said, adding that he hoped the district could perhaps partner with Vashon Youth & Family Services to provide this support.
McSheehy also outlined, at the meeting, what was in store for the 62 community members now serving as a “reopening team” for the schools.
The advisory group, which met four times in the spring and twice in August — both before and after the announcement of the quarters plan — will now be divided into focus groups, McSheehy said.
One focus group will devise strategies for surveys to be conducted by the school, and another group would plan and advise on hybrid models combining in-person and online schooling. A third group would focus on the implementation of outdoor learning, which McSheehy said he hopes to begin as soon as possible in eight outdoor classrooms to be erected by the district at Chautauqua Elementary in partnership with VashonBePrepared.
Sparks said that more engagement with the community to solicit feedback will be crucial as school opened, but didn’t define how that should take place.
“We need to reach out proactively to communities of color, parents of students with IEPs, and have an active touch in the first month so that we are not passively receiving information,” she said. “Whether we do that with a survey or phone calls or …. I don’t want to sit and think that everything must be going fine. We need to seek out feedback.”
And in the meantime, VHS principal has notified parents by email and in a Zoom Q&A last week of planned mitigation for students taking AP classes in the fall. He said that these classes will be supported with off-quarter contact time between teachers and students, off-quarter work (depending on teachers’ analysis of need), and access to a variety of content-specific supports from the College Board.
“We will also revisit our quarter model in the second semester and will move fourth-quarter AP classes to third-quarter — if we are still in the quarter model,” he said. “We will make a decision about the second semester between mid-December and mid-January that factors in how the virus and our learning model progresses.”