Monday, April 22, 2024

Elementary kids are failing more this year, too, but the difference from last year is minor

Some elementary schools are struggling more than others under Plan B. (Port City Daily/New Hanover County Schools)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY – More New Hanover County students are failing this year than normal as they continue to adapt to remote learning, but the difference in most elementary schools appears to be slight.

Close to 6% of third, fourth and fifth graders – a total of 324 kids – were not making passing grades at the end of the first quarter. That percentage is only somewhat higher than the rate this time last year when 4.6% of children – or 276 students – were failing.

Related: New Hanover County students failing in record numbers, still unknown when schools will fully reopen

(Grades are not available for K-2; those students receive standards-based report cards.)

“The overall impact of Covid-19 and school closure – we all know that’s something we have never had to experience before,” said Dr. Jakki Jethro, director of elementary education for NHCS. “But the thing that remains the same is that as educators – and that applies for elementary and secondary – we do work to meet the needs of students where they are.”

Some K-5 schools, such as Winter Park and Castle Hayne, have actually seen considerable improvements in their failure rates compared to this time last year, but other schools’ numbers are concerning.

The International School at Gregory, a high-poverty school, is performing at the lowest levels, with 33% of kids falling behind in the first quarter. This time last year, about 9% of its students were failing.

Behind Gregory, John J. Blair’s failure rate in the first quarter was about 26%. Last year, just 1% of children in grades 3-5 were failing.

Jethro, the elementary education director, declined to comment on those schools’ increased failure rate without first consulting the administrators. The district’s spokesperson followed up with a written statement: “Administrators have been working with all of our principals at all schools to address their needs. This is not a one size fits all solution so different strategies will need to be implemented at different locations.”

At Snipes, Bradley Creek, College Park, Forest Hills, Heyward C. Bellamy and Forest Hills elementary schools, between 9% and 15% of students in grades 3-5 were failing in the first quarter.

Although less drastic than the secondary schools, students of color are also failing at disproportionate levels in the younger grades. Between 10% and 11% of Black and Hispanic kids in grades 3-5 were failing in the first quarter; however, just 3% of white students were failing.

In middle and high schools, close to half of the Hispanic and Black populations were failing courses in the first quarter, while 22% of white students were failing.

Overall, failure rates in middle and high schools are significantly higher so far this year compared to a traditional school year. Thirty-six percent of middle schoolers and 29% of high schoolers were failing courses in the first quarter of 2020-21. During this time in the 2019-2020 school year, just 14% of middle schoolers were failing and 17% of high schoolers were failing.

Superintendent Charles Foust said Thursday in a virtual Q&A he thinks students who are struggling have “checked out” and stressed the need for increased engagement.

“I honestly believe because of the remote learning, they are not all in,” Foust said. “Virtual learning does not work for everyone, and that’s what’s going on. It’s not that they can’t do the work; it’s just that connectivity isn’t there.”

Related: ‘Hit the front lines’: Holidays and vaccine will mark next chapter of local fight against pandemic

North Carolina’s public school districts can choose to reopen K-5 schools at full capacity, but NHCS has not pursued that option. Staff members have indicated the district wants to replenish its substitute pool and is looking for stabilizing Covid-19 trends – specifically, 5% or less of tests coming back positive for 10 consecutive days in the county – before moving to Plan A. On Thursday, it was 6.9%. 

As Plan B continues, Jethro encourages parents whose kids may be struggling to reach out to their school’s principals, counselors and other staff.

“Our strategy, of course, is for our schools to work with our families to involve students, to check on students who have been absent or disconnected from instruction for some reason, and then really facilitate that learning,” Jethro said.

In Pender County, roughly 14% of pupils in grades 3-5 had one or more failing grades during the first quarter. The failure rate among those students this time last year was about 8%.

Until recently, Pender County Schools was operating under a similar Plan B model as NHCS, allowing elementary schoolers to attend in-person instruction twice a week. As of Nov. 9, kids can either attend face-to-face instruction four days a week or opt for remote learning at any time.

Brunswick County Schools’ data was not available as of press time.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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