Kids Getting Out of School

Students climb onto their buses after school at Bozeman High.

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Despite a challenging start to the school year, Bozeman School District’s two high schools reported an overall lower number of failed courses for the fall semester compared to the past school year.

The principals at Bozeman High School and Gallatin High School reported seeing a concerning number of students receiving an F in at least one class during fall’s mid-semester mark. But through flexible grading options and support from teachers, fewer students received failing grades in the first semester.

“Teachers were really willing to work with students,” said Gallatin High Principal Erica Schnee.

By semester’s end, 3.3% of Bozeman High in-person students received an F, compared to 8% of Bozeman High students from last year. At Gallatin High, 8% of in-person students failed — the school is in its first year.

After noticing a higher-than-normal number of failing students halfway through the fall semester, conversations began among teachers about how best to meet students’ needs and the challenges they were experiencing during this time, said both Schnee and Bozeman High Principal Dan Mills.

Some of those challenges included emergency remote learning from last spring, the transition to a blended learning model in the fall, the learning curve of the new learning management system, rolling quarantines and other general challenges of living through a pandemic.

“This was a really collaborative conversation,” Mills said. “This was not Erica and I telling teachers they need to consider these things. It started with teachers saying ‘I don’t like how my gradebook looks right now. What are some things I can do?’ ”

Teachers started sharing different strategies across departments.

“Our teachers are really flexible by saying (grades) won’t be constituted solely by assignment completions or an average of homework,” Mills said. “… There are a myriad of ways to assess student learning.”

Some of the different grading considerations included offering alternative assessments or assignments to replace previous work, and a passing grade or a withdrawn grade instead of a letter grade. A passing grade allows students to receive credit toward graduation for the class but does not apply to their grade point average. A withdrawn does not count toward credit or GPA.

An incomplete can also be offered with the option to change a grade after completing teacher-approved assignments in the second semester.

“It’s within our existing policies,” Schnee said “… Teachers took a much more intentional approach to evaluate student learning based on the wide range of experiences.”

While the overall number of students receiving a failing grade was lower than the average, remote students had a higher percentage of F’s. Although there’s a number of students can “thrive in that environment,” Mills said other students have struggled to stay engaged.

“We saw more students failing their classes if they were remote,” he said. “It’s something we were concerned about.”

Mills and Schnee said it was not a surprise for some students to struggle with remote learning since it’s harder to check in with them and get direct feedback. The principals said Bozeman and Gallatin high schools are offering opportunities for more engagement with teachers, tutors and paraprofessionals.

Although the number of students failing a class is lower than previous years, Mills and Schnee both said they are focused on helping those students. Part of the high schools’ strategy includes using Wednesdays, typically a remote-learning day, for in-person academic support and tutoring.

The different grading considerations used by teachers reflect a growing shift in education in recent years. Schnee said the concepts and themes that teach critical learning skills are important and grading is shifting to recognize that.

“Integration of learning and the learning progression, it’s important in real world applications,” Schnee said.

The strategies used by teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic have been in the district policy for years, Mills said. But restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus this past year highlighted the need to be flexible, he said.

“We’re in the middle of something that we hope doesn’t last forever but we’re recognizing that there are very valuable things we can learn from this experience,” he said. “… How we approach grades might not be the same way.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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