According to the only metric available for student engagement in Seattle last spring, less than half of elementary school kids logged into the district’s learning portal after Seattle Public Schools shut down for the coronavirus.
Between March and June, only 48% of kindergarten through fifth graders logged on to Schoology, the district’s learning management system where teachers post assignments and announcements. For student populations the district has sworn to serve better, the rates are lower.
Only 41% of English learners in kindergarten through fifth grade logged in at least once, the lowest rate of any population group measured. In those early grades, the numbers were at 42.8% for Black male students, and nearly 45% for the students of color the district calls “the furthest from educational justice” — African American, Latinx, Native American, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students. Kids with disabilities from all racial groups were at 47.5%.
The data, provided to Seattle School Board members this month before they approved the district’s plan to start remotely in the fall doesn’t capture all student engagement. To be counted, all you had to do was sign on once.
But ahead of a new school year that will at least start remotely, the numbers shed light on the challenges of online learning — particularly when it comes to serving young and vulnerable students at a critical point in their education.
Why are the numbers low for young kids?
For one, it’s hard for small kids to navigate a learning management system website independently. Before the closures, very few elementary school teachers had ever used the portal or adapted their lessons for digital use. The data also don’t capture whether parents could have accessed the portal from their own accounts as a way to get students their lessons. And since the district did not release information by grade level, it is unclear whether kids in very early grades, such as kindergarten, might be driving down the averages.
Teachers may have used other apps and ways to communicate with parents and kids. And a lack of reliable access to technology or the internet could be another factor, with the district prioritizing distribution of devices to older kids first.
But even among older kids, whose engagement rates were significantly higher, there were still inequities, particularly for Black male students, whom Superintendent Denise Juneau sought to prioritize in her five-year strategic plan. A spokesperson for the district said he could not set up an interview with district leadership before press time.
“The very set of students we are focused on are the ones we are failing in terms of inspiring engagement,” said Brandon Hersey, a Seattle School Board member.
Both the district and the teachers union vowed to improve what families experienced in the spring, which Juneau recently called, “an emergency response.” Some things on the horizon: more device distribution to families — with more user-friendly iPads going to younger kids — expanded tech support and scheduled, daily times for teachers to check in with students.
Negotiations between management and labor, still ongoing, could lead to the creation of more supports for bilingual families, too. But until those negotiations end, it’s hard to know much that is concrete about the fall, especially for students receiving special education services.
Hersey, the only Black member of the Board and a second grade teacher in Federal Way, wasn’t surprised to see the numbers. School systems have long struggled to make Black students and their families feel valued and seen, he said, and a remote model only exacerbates the problem.
Through an amendment tacked on to the remote learning plan passed this week, he and other Board members advocated for the recreation of different virtual affinity groups — places for Black students to gather online with Black teachers. They wrote in a section reinforcing the teaching of Black studies, tribally-developed curricula and ethnic studies.
A portion of the amendment also directs the superintendent to expand relationships with community organizations and create outdoor class options so that teachers and school employees can still interact with kids.
Districts can turn a new page in the fall by using data like this to quickly pivot, said Bernadette Merikle, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit with an anti-racist focus that works to improve educational outcomes in South King County and guides school districts on community engagement.
Seeing low engagement on a certain platform? Ask where families and students would prefer to get access, said Merikle. The trick will be pivoting quickly, Merikle said, and being able to weigh efficiency — streamlining communication all in one website or app — with the reality of needing to reaching everyone. Multiple ways of touching base, they said, might turn out to be more equitable.
The past few months illuminated districts’ pre-pandemic troubles communicating with families Merikle said, including poorly translated or nonexistent materials for recent immigrant communities. But the current environment will force districts to confront the issues in a new, possibly better way. They can also support the community alliances that have sprouted up in the absence of much engagement from the school system.
Said Merikle, “For our Black students, while it’s really easy to tell the story of disconnect — there are pockets of glimmer and hope out there, of families banding together.”