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Detroit district’s virtual school tightens rules to tackle absenteeism

The hand of a student appears in front of a laptop screen, as they attempt to complete an attendance report for that day of virtual learning.

The Detroit Public School Community District will tackle poor attendance and academic performance in its virtual school with a series of changes intended for the 2022-23 school year.

Andrea Morales for Chalkbeat

The Detroit school district will tighten standards for enrollment in its virtual school to address sky-high rates of chronic absenteeism and academic failure.

The district also plans to expand options for elective courses, implement a midyear check-in for incoming students, and re-evaluate teachers in the online school.

The virtual school, which grew out of the online teaching systems used during the height of the pandemic, has been operating for nearly a year, with as many as 2,100 students in grades K-12. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said he’s committed to keeping the school operating for families who are still uncomfortable with in-person learning, but he and others have raised concerns about how well the school is meeting student needs.

Parents have complained about overfilled virtual classrooms, teacher turnover, and inadequate instruction for children with special education needs. Some teachers have lamented their working conditions. 

Meanwhile, district data show that about 77% of students in the virtual school are chronically absent, meaning they have missed more than 10% of the school year. That’s even higher than the 69% rate for students who attend in person. 

What’s more, through mid-April, nearly half of students in the virtual school failed at least one core class and were chronically absent.

Under the new rules for next year, students in that category will not be allowed into the virtual school. 

“Our expectations for attendance and passing rates will be higher starting next year,” said Vitti. 

“We want the virtual school to be offered,” he added, “but we also want children to be successful, and we need students who can keep pace and be supported at home through the virtual school or we’re setting up students for failure.”

Vitti had proposed similar restrictions last year before the virtual school opened, but the district backed away from them.

The discussion about reinforcing Detroit’s virtual school is happening as districts across the country look to beef up or create online options for the coming school year. A Chalkbeat review found that nearly all of the nation’s 20 largest school districts will have a remote option this fall, with at least half offering more full-time online schooling than they did before the pandemic.

Los Angeles plans to expand its remote learning options this fall ahead of its implementation of a student vaccine mandate. New York City is moving forward with plans to launch two fully virtual schools that will serve ninth graders only next year. Chicago’s Virtual Academy will return this fall despite concerns from families and advocates over lack of transparency about the school’s curriculum as well as its lack of resources for English language learners and students with disabilities.

In Detroit, district officials agree that the virtual school isn’t working the way it should, though they haven’t always been able to agree on how to make it more successful.

This spring, Vitti considered limiting enrollment next year to grades 4-12, based on conversations with school leaders that suggested the virtual school may not be the right space for early childhood literacy. But concerns from the school board’s academic committee about discontinuing early grades scotched that plan.

Attendance remains an overarching worry. Board chair Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said during May’s board meeting that the attendance statistics are “not good from our students’ perspective.”

“There are things that we need to do differently going into the fall,” Peterson-Mayberry said.  “We do feel that we are failing young people if we know that they are not attending and we are not putting measures in place for them to attend.”

Vitti said what developed as an alternative to in-person learning during the pandemic is due for a change.

“I think it is time to just rethink the virtual setting to make sure that we’re screening students and frankly holding students and families accountable to attendance and achievement in a virtual setting,” Vitti said. 

Additional changes could include expanding course offerings for electives, reenrolling high-performing students with consistent attendance, and implementing a midyear check-in for incoming students to determine if they want to remain after the fall semester. Teachers would be reevaluated to determine if they are the right fit for online teaching.

Tom Van Hulle, a high school social studies teacher at the virtual school, said although the program is still a “work in progress,” he believes the remote learning option is making an impact.

“I’m able to talk to students, and they’re able to participate in ways a traditional school setting wasn’t set up for them,” Van Hulle said during a May school board meeting. “Whether it’s for mental health, physical health, transportation … there’s just a whole host of issues I think Detroit’s virtual school is really answering.”

Others are losing patience. 

Caregiver and special education advocate Sharon Kelso watches her nephews’ virtual high school classes every day. Between witnessing teachers getting replaced midyear and larger class sizes, she’s been concerned that her nephews and other students have lost interest in school.

“The kids are there, but when they come there’s nothing for them to learn,” she said of her ninth and 11th grade nephews. “They’re frustrated, they’re disappointed. Their morale is low, and they really hate going to school because they’re not being taught.”

Kelso plans to send both of the children to in-person school in the fall but worries that the district won’t do enough to help online students make the transition back to in-person learning. 

Aliya Moore, parent of a sixth grader who attends the virtual school, said she will be returning her daughter to in-person school this fall after dealing with “the instability of the year.” Moore initially enrolled her daughter due to safety concerns, but grew reluctant to keep her in the school as she observed teacher absences during the fall semester.

Kendra White, a third grade teacher in the virtual school, described an unpleasant work environment. While students attend online, all virtual school teachers are required to teach in person at the former Communication and Media Arts high school. There isn’t enough space in that building for each teacher to have their own classroom. So they share. That might mean three teachers in one room — all trying to conduct their own lessons.

“It’s so noisy, you can’t think, you can’t focus,” White said.

White says students are being shortchanged, too.

“We had so many students, we can’t take care of them,” she said. ”We can’t fit their needs. We can’t do interventions for kids that need to read for their third grade reading law. There was no time to service these children, and that’s a disservice to the families of third grade.”

Vitti countered that the district is offering noise-canceling headphones for teachers. In addition, he said, under the district’s $700 million facilities plan, more classroom space could be offered to teachers once DPSCD Virtual School is moved to the currently vacant Northern High School building.

“This is an evolution of improvement when it comes to the virtual school,” Vitti said.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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