Kalid Ali (bottom left), the student representative to the St. Paul School board, questions why so many students are receiving failing grades during a December 15 virtual meeting. Credit: Screenshot | St. Paul Public Schools

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Nearly half of all secondary students in St. Paul Public Schools failed a class in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year. Failing grades are two and a half times more common than last year. And students of color in every demographic category are more than twice as likely to be failing a class as their white peers.

Those are among the findings district leadership presented to the St. Paul school board December 15, in data broken down by racial and ethnic groups for the first time. 

The numbers are a grim indication of how students are struggling through the combined pressures of distance learning and a global pandemic—especially students of color, who make up four-fifths of the district’s student population.

“We cannot look at this data and say the kids are all right,” said school board member Steve Marchese. “They may be muddling through, but they’re not all right.”

Another way of looking at the problem is by comparing the overall number of failing grades in the first quarter, which ended November 13, with the 2019-2020 school year. This data represents percentages of failing grades assigned in four core subject areas for all middle and high school students. As students take multiple classes, this data set does not reflect the numbers of individual students with failing grades.

The greatest increase came in failed courses for Asian students. In the first quarter of 2019, 7 percent of Asian students’ final grades were F’s. In the first quarter of 2020, that number more than quadrupled, to 30 percent. More than 40 percent of all grades registered for Hispanic, Black, and American Indian students during the first quarter were failing grades, roughly doubling from last year for each group.

Minneapolis Public Schools data obtained by Sahan Journal through a public records request showed a similar pattern, though the numbers of failing or “no credit” grades appeared lower. During the first quarter, Minneapolis students in grades 6-12 received “no credit” grades rather than Fs. The “no credit” grades do not affect students’ grade point averages and leave open an opportunity to make up the credit later. Overall, the number of failing or “no credit” grades for Minneapolis secondary students nearly doubled from last year’s first quarter.

“No credit” grades for Hispanic students, Black students, and English language learners in Minneapolis all roughly doubled from failing grades last year.

Because this fall’s academic environment is so different from last fall, the increase is not surprising, said Aimee Fearing, interim senior academic officer for Minneapolis Public Schools. It’s harder for teachers to see what students need when they’re not in the same classroom, and the pandemic, economic pressures, and additional family responsibilities mean many students are dividing their attention. And high school students will have the opportunity to gain credits for up to two of the first quarter’s courses in a winter break academy; the makeup credit program will also be available during spring break.

Still, she said the numbers were worrying.

“Any student failing, or receiving no credit as it were, is concerning because it means they’re not on a graduation track,” Fearing said.

‘The future students who bring us joy and arts and politics and law, we could lose them’

Kate Wilcox-Harris, the chief academic officer for St. Paul Public Schools, told the school board that the data called for an activist response.

An apt metaphor for the situation is that “the building is on fire,” she said.  “We need to show the students the exit.” 

Schools are identifying individual students who are struggling in order to actively support them, Wilcox-Harris said: “Who’s failing, why they’re failing, what the action plan is, and attaching navigators and other resources to get the students back on track,” she said. “We will do everything in our power to bring more resources—people, money, and power—to our classrooms.”

Some board members pointed out that racial disparities in the community and in the schools are not new.

“The building’s been on fire for a long time,” board member Chauntyll Allen said. “We’ve had parents showing up to school board meetings in mass amounts for years, complaining about the same problem. So when are we going to get to this point where we say, our building is on fire, and tomorrow we’re going to address this issue?”

High schoolers who pass the same class in the second quarter will have their failing grade changed to a passing grade, administrators told the school board in a December 8 meeting. The district is also expanding one-on-one support, virtual tutoring, and credit recovery options.

Some districts across the country are rethinking grading practices altogether, Wilcox-Harris said. While that might not be necessary in St. Paul, it’s clear that making radical change is necessary, she said.

“If we don’t, the readers, the writers, the singers, the thinkers, we could lose them,” she said. “The future students who bring us joy and arts and politics and law, we could lose them. And we’re not willing to do it. Not without putting up a fight.”

In Minneapolis, counselors and teachers are making an “all hands on deck” effort to reach out to students and their families, Fearing said. She wants students to know that teachers understand their lives may be complicated now, and are here to support them.

“We have to have hope,” she said. “We will be back in classes, back with teachers, back with the principals, where many of them found their joy and belonging. What worries me is the students we haven’t been able to get in contact with and haven’t been able to have that conversation, and say, we understand. It’s okay.”

Some students are grieving the loss of their parents or a friend, and haven’t been able to go to the funeral, she said.

“You want to just open up your building and say come in, be safe, we’re here for you, but we can’t do that,” Fearing said. “That’s the piece that I think is most needed, but that’s the piece also that we can’t do.”

Kalid Ali, student representative to the St. Paul school board, appeared deeply troubled by the number of students receiving failing grades. He had warned district leadership that immigrant students would be adversely affected by distance learning, he said after the presentation. 

Yeu Vang, assistant superintendent of the Office of Multilingual Learning, expressed sympathy with Kalid’s sentiments.

“The families who are immigrant and refugee are one of the most vulnerable groups who don’t always find their voice,” she said. English learners are now facing competing demands for their time, rather than being able to focus primarily on schooling, she said. 

She’s advocated for English learners to be among the first groups brought back to in-person schooling, and bilingual educational assistants have gone “above and beyond” to connect with students’ families, she said. But distance learning has presented an additional set of hurdles to English learners who already faced challenges.

“It has been very disheartening for me, leading the EL department and looking at our EL students struggling and not connecting in the way I know they would when they were in person,” Vang said.

Kalid stressed the need for a sense of urgency.

“Even when pandemic is over, they’re now even farther behind than they were prior to pandemic, and it’s not acceptable,” he said. “This is going to put us back generations.” 

English learners who have worked hard to improve their standing are now going back to the starting point, he said.

“It bothers me that half of my friends are failing class and they might not be on track to graduate high school,” Kalid said. “That’s just not something we should take lightly.”

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.