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CMS Grades Point To Where COVID-19 Has Hit Hardest

Oakdale Elementary students returned to in-person classes for the second time in mid-February.
Ann Doss Helms
Oakdale Elementary students returned to in-person classes for the second time in mid-February.

In the first semester of last school year, 3% of Oakdale Elementary School’s third-graders got a D or F in reading. That was before the pandemic.

This year, with a fluctuating mix of remote and in-person classes, 69% of Oakdale’s third-graders fell below a C.

That’s one of the more extreme swings, but data on classroom grades provided by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shows many schools have taken dramatic hits on measures of academic performance during the pandemic. Almost always, they’re schools like Oakdale in north Charlotte, a high-poverty neighborhood school where more than 80% of students are Black or Hispanic.

The pandemic has disproportionately hit people of color — and 64% of CMS students, or more than 89,000 students, are Black or Hispanic.

Grades Hint At Challenges

Third grade reading is considered a crucial measure of the ability to keep up in higher grades. The state exams that are normally used to gauge reading proficiency were canceled last year.

In 12 of 109 elementary schools, at least half of all third-graders had D’s or F’s in English language arts the first semester of this year, when classes were partly remote and partly in person. That’s up from two that hit that level in 2019. (See list below.)

Grades in eighth grade math, an indicator of readiness to advance to high school math and science, tell a similar story. Thirteen of 42 middle schools gave D’s or F’s to at least half their students in the first semester of this year, compared with two schools the previous year. (See list below.)

CMS officials say all schools have students who have missed school or fallen behind as COVID-19 disrupted school schedules and family life. But at some schools those numbers are small. Schools with massive disruption of academic progress will get extra support figuring out the causes and helping students catch up, said Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes.

“For those schools where we see a high concentration, there is an all-in approach,” Hayes said.

Failure Is Tied To Absence

Often the students with low classroom grades haven’t been logging on for remote work — or haven’t been submitting work when they do, CMS officials and school leaders said.

Oakdale Principal Mary Weston said missing work is behind her school’s steep increase in failing grades.

“I can promise you in third grade it’s not because they earned (an F)," she said. "It’s because we don't have anything to determine what they’re capable of.”

CMS leaders said they’re trying to avoid language that stigmatizes students, families or teachers. COVID-19 has hit families with illness and job losses that can make it hard for students to focus on academics. Lack of a good internet connection or adults lacking in computer skills to help young children with online lessons can further set students back.

“We don’t want to place blame, right? But we do want to fix the problem,” said Assistant Superintendent Beth Thompson.

Connecting With Families

Officials say the first step is connecting with families to figure out solutions.

Alba Sanchez
Courtesy of Alba Sanchez
Alba Sanchez

Alba Sanchez of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition said language and cultural barriers have been a problem for years. She’s a CMS parent who works with immigrant families, and she said parents who don’t speak English and don’t use computers have a hard time connecting with school staff.

Just having one bilingual employee — or hiring a translator for events — isn’t enough, Sanchez said. CMS needs to have enough Spanish-speaking staff that someone can always answer the phone in Spanish, and those employees need to build ongoing relationships with parents who may not trust institutions. She also encourages the district to create Hispanic PTAs in each school.

“At the end of the day, all these kids are our future in this state,” Sanchez said. “If these kids are not getting the education, you know, what kind of generations are we going to have?”

Solutions In The Works

CMS recently announced districtwide grading policies designed to provide students a chance to bring their grades up even if they’ve fallen behind. For instance, no grade below 50 will be given, even for work that wasn’t turned in, and students now get a five-day grace period to submit work without penalty.

Hayes says decisions about whether to retain students will be made by principals, consulting with families.

North Carolina legislators have described a proposed system of mandatory catch-up summer schools as a safety net for students at risk of being held back.

D’s And F’s In Crucial Subjects

Here are the CMS schools that logged at least 50% D’s and F’s in the first two quarters of this school year, compared with the same period in 2019-20. “High poverty” signals a school receives federal Title I money.

Third Grade English Language Arts

Allenbrook Elementary: 87%, up from 32%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 64% Black, 20% Hispanic.

Ashley Park PreK-8: 89%, up from 17%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 83% Black, 12% Hispanic. Absence rates were also high.

Charlotte East Language Academy: 51%, up from 8%. High-poverty magnet/neighborhood school, 63% Hispanic, 22% Black.

Greenway Park Elementary: 54%, up from 13%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 54% Black, 32% Hispanic.

Hidden Valley Elementary: 50%, up from 27%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 64% Hispanic, 33% Black.

Hornets Nest Elementary: 50%, up from 23%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 64% Black, 25% Hispanic.

Joseph W. Grier Academy: 70%, up from 22%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 45% Hispanic, 43% Black.

Oakdale Elementary: 69%, up from 3%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 63% Black, 21% Hispanic.

Reid Park Academy: 61%, up from 39%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 74% Black, 17% Hispanic. Absence rates were also high.

Starmount Academy: 62%, up from 19%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 75% Hispanic, 20% Black.

Whitewater Academy: 56%, up from 22%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 48% Black, 36% Hispanic.

Winterfield Elementary, 74%, up from 70%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 63% Hispanic, 22% Black.

Eighth Grade Math

Albemarle Road Middle: 51%, up from 47%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 50% Hispanic, 34% Black. Absence rates were also high.

Ashley Park PreK-8: 68%, up from 11%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 83% Black, 12% Hispanic. Absence rates were also high.

Cochrane Collegiate: 75%, up from 42%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 60% Hispanic, 30% Black.

Druid Hills Academy: 54%, up from 49%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 85% Black, 10% Hispanic.

Eastway Middle: 62%, up from 49%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 57% Hispanic, 33% Black. Absence rates were also high.

James Martin Middle: 63%, up from 40%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 62% Black, 31% Hispanic.

Marie G. Davis School: 55%, up from 25%. High-poverty neighborhood/magnet school, 53% Black, 44% Hispanic.

Martin Luther King Jr. Middle: 69%, up from 60%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 61% Hispanic, 33% Black. Absence rates were also high.

McClintock Middle: 50%, up from 45%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 44% Black, 37% Hispanic.

Mountain Island Lake Academy: 73%, up from 58%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 61% Black, 17% Hispanic.

Ridge Road Middle: 57%, up from 34%. Not a Title I school. 66% Black, 16% Hispanic.

Sedgefield Middle: 76%, up from 40%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 48% Black, 29% white.

Whitewater Middle: 62%, up from 12%. High-poverty neighborhood school, 51% Black, 36% Hispanic. Absence rates were also high.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.