Most Virtual Academy students who failed were economically disadvantaged, but experts can’t pin it on that reason alone

The Sioux Falls School District administration office, the Instructional Planning Center, is located at 201 E 38th Street, shown here Thursday, June 13, 2019 in Sioux Falls.

Anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of students who did not meet grade-level standards in a new Virtual Academy this fall were economically disadvantaged, according to data recently obtained by the Argus Leader.

The Argus Leader reviewed the data after Sioux Falls School District officials revealed earlier this spring that as many as one-third to nearly two-thirds of students, varied by grade level, did not meet grade-level standards.

Sioux Falls School District offered the Virtual Academy in fall 2020 as an alternative education model to families during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Running parallel to the data is the number of students of color who also did not meet education standards.

Data obtained by the Argus Leader shows anywhere from 44% to 59% of Virtual Academy studentswho fell through the cracks this fall were students of color, depending on grade level.

More:Online classes at Sioux Falls district’s Virtual Academy worked for some but not all students during the pandemic

Students of color make up the majority of a dozen elementary and middle schools in town, and in most cases, the most racially diverse schools are also those with the highest percentage of low-income students, with most geographically concentrated in central and northern Sioux Falls, according to previous Argus Leader reporting.

But district officials and education experts say being economically disadvantaged may not be the sole reason students experienced learning loss with the virtual academy, and are hesitant to point to a connection between race and socioeconomic status for students who didn’t meet standards.

District spokesperson Carly Uthe said the district has “never made that correlation” between race and economic status.

“Regardless of race or economic status, students perform at all levels,” she said.

Virtual Academy worked for a ‘small subset’ 

Jodie Buskohl's daughter, Nevaeh, works on her Virtual Academy class. Nevaeh Buskohl is a junior at Roosevelt High School and works on her academy classes in between her full-time job as a manager at Burger King.

Virtual Academy is an online curriculum the district began offering in fall 2020 to students who chose to learn all online amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers would check in with students a couple of times each week virtually.

The district has since discontinued the Virtual Academy option for all students but those in grades three through eight, after data showed early learners (kindergarteners through second-graders) weren’t able to meet standards.

More:Sioux Falls expected to end virtual academy for early learners by fall

The revelation also comes after the academy saw a decline in enrollment during the first six months of operation, illustrating the fact that virtual learning did not work for all students and the continuously changing circumstances of COVID-19.

  • Of the 1,180 elementary students who enrolled in the Academy at the start of the fall semester, only 665 students remained enrolled continuously throughout the semester.
  • Of the 659 middle school students who enrolled in the Academy at the start of the fall semester, only 564 remained enrolled continuously throughout the semester.
  • In November, 1,014 high school students were enrolled in the Academy, but only 768 high school students were enrolled continuously through the semester.

As many as one-third of elementary students, half of middle school students and nearly two-thirds of high school students did not meet grade-level standards when they were in Virtual Academy, assistant superintendent of academic achievement Teresa Boysen said in a February school board meeting.

Virtual options were only working for a “small subset of students,” she said. Of the students enrolled continuously throughout the fall 2020 semester, the majority of those who did not meet grade-level standards were economically disadvantaged.

Story continues below graphic.

Experts say learning loss is expected

The economic data is similar to what the district sees in its general population, said Doug Morrison, the district’s director of research, innovation and accountability. Morrison said there’s “virtually no other districts like us in the state.”

“Anecdotally, federally, they’re expecting a lot of learning loss over this past year,” Morrison said. “They’re putting a lot of money out there too, knowing that there’s going to be recovery needs for kids as they come out of a virtual environment. That’s loud and clear from states where their kids haven’t been in school all year.”

Other dependent variables, such as students’ health, mental health, safety and engagement could be impacting the data, Amy Schweinle, interim dean of the School of Education at the University of South Dakota, said.

More:Sioux Falls’ Virtual Academy helps families find more connections during ongoing pandemic

“Nationwide, there are concerns across the board with all students in school because of the other dependent variables, it’s not just test scores,” Schweinle said. “The dependent variables matter, and what actually is the cause in this case? I think it brings up a lot more questions than answers.”

Researchers are “scrambling” right now to figure out how COVID-19 and online learning has impacted education, David De Jong, assistant professor of education at USD, said. As of now, it’s too early to fully understand COVID-19’s impacts on education, he said.

For Jodie Buskohl, the academy worked for her high schooler who’s also a full-time manager at Burger King, but didn’t work for her seventh grade son, who she told the Argus Leader lacked motivation.

“He just lacked all motivation, and it felt like most days, I had to hold him hostage in his room for him to do any school work at all,” Buskohl said.

The Buskohl family visits the Omaha Zoo together. From left to right, Gavin Podgornik (a student in Head Start), Kaiden Podgornik (a seventh grade student at Memorial Middle School), father Kai Podgornik, Nevaeh Buskohl (an eleventh grade student at Roosevelt High School and the Virtual Academy), and Lucy Buskohl (a student in Head Start).

What is economic disadvantage?

Students considered economically disadvantaged are those who are receiving free or reduced-price lunch at any point in the year, attending a school identified as Community Eligibility Provision (a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas), or appearing on the list provided by Child and Adult Nutrition Services at any point in the year.

District-wide, 44% of students are on free and reduced lunch, Uthe said.

Here’s how many economically disadvantaged students failed to meet standards through the virtual academy:

  • Elementary — Of the 665 elementary students enrolled continuously through the first semester of Virtual Academy, 33% did not meet expected grade level standards in English Language Arts (ELA). Of that 33%, 160 were economically disadvantaged.  31% of the enrolled elementary students failed to meet math standards, of whom 155 were economically disadvantaged.
  • Middle school — 564 middle school students were enrolled continuously through the first semester of Virtual Academy, but 50% did not meet grade level standards in ELA. Of that 50%, 184 were economically disadvantaged. 56% of the middle school students did not meet standards in math, of whom 186 were economically disadvantaged.
  • High school — 768 high school students were enrolled continuously through the first semester of Virtual Academy, but 63% did not earn the credits needed to move forward with their grade-level cohort and stay on pace for graduation. Of those students, 287 were economically disadvantaged.
Seventh-grader Deakon Shald-Wisotzkey works on classwork from home as a student in the Sioux Falls School Districts' Virtual Academy. The new learning model, created to help those directly affected by the ongoing pandemic, has allowed Shald-Wisotzkey to spend more time with family and do more outdoors with a flexible schedule.

Virtual Academy differs from in-person learning

So, what did the district do between the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March and the start of the Virtual Academy in the fall to prepare students for a new form of online learning?

Last spring was different from the style of learning students do in Virtual Academy, Boysen said, noting that spring 2020 was called “remote learning.” 

Gov. Kristi Noem first ordered schools to close March 13 for a week for cleaning, but ordered by April that schools remain closed for the rest of spring 2020.

Over the summer, the district developed the Virtual Academy, gave each student a Chromebook and worked with families on a case-by-case basis in terms of helping with technology, Uthe said.

More:Hundreds of Sioux Falls students ditch online learning in first month of school year

For instance, any family who needed assistance with internet access was provided a hot spot, Uthe said, and families had orientation with teachers similar to a typical back-to-school event in a virtual setting.

Students had to be responsible, self-directed and pace their learning to turn in assignments on time. That’s a different environment than “a bell rings and I go to my first class, my teacher tells me what to do, I learn, collaborate with my peers and go to my second class,” Boysen said.

When students learn in school, they can gain information from classroom teachers directly as well as from conversations and questions from other students ask, Boysen said.

When students are learning in Virtual Academy, Boysen said other members of the household are there with them, and students have to be responsible to get up, complete work and turn it in.

“That whole structure is different from the structure within the school building,” she said. “They have to be a self-directed learner, and have that support system to help them monitor their progress along the way. Teachers check in with them and support them, but they have to do the work in between. That’s very different from what it looks like in school.”

Cylar Carlson (left), a third grade student at John Harris Elementary School, and sister Alana Carlson, a seventh grade student at Patrick Henry Middle School, study in the Sioux Falls Virtual Academy.

Sioux Falls schools will offer support

Students who fell through the cracks during the COVID-19 pandemic do have recovery options though.

Staff in buildings have reached out to families and students to help support them, and many students are already back in buildings, Boysen said. Summer recovery classes are also an option for students in June and July.

“Next year, we’ll be ready to roll with students in class and support them just like we do any year,” Boysen said.

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