District adapts to new metrics

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

District adapts to new metricsREBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff WriterAlthough Sierra Sands Unified School District reported a slight dip in enrollment at the beginning of this year, the traditional metric for gaging attendance has changed with the implementation of Distance Learning.

Because students are no longer arriving at a physical campus, where they stay throughout the day, California Department of Education has created the “Attendance, Participation and Engagement” model to determine student interaction in the virtual environment.

“It gives us a more all-encompassing picture, which we really cannot get solely from the traditional ‘attendance’ metric,” said Kevin Wythe, coordinator of student support service.

“Under the landscape of Distance Learning, where we are now operating, the thresholds and parameters of ‘present’ look different. Maybe a student does not log onto Zoom, but they got their daily work done. In that instance, if they engaged with the curriculum and allowed an opportunity for two-way dialog between the student and teacher, that could still qualify as meaningful engagement.”

Sierra Sands assembled a stakeholders group — which included teachers, administrators, parents and family members, health care officials and other community representatives, to gather insight into the needs of the community.

Surveys also queried student families on the availability of devices, internet and preferences between an on-campus, all-virtual or hybrid model of education. Until late July, SSUSD was planning a return to campus for the start of the year.

However, orders from the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom required schools to start the year on a virtual platform — and also tightened up restrictions on the eligibility for on-campus instruction.

The district subsequently distributed thousands of Chromebooks and hundreds of MiFi devices to allow remote access, and has been pursuing the waiver to allow in-person instruction of students with acute special needs.

“As we have identified barriers to student learning, we have done our best to mitigate those and improve access,” said Wythe.

“So even while we are doing everything we can to support Distance Learning, we are also continuing to plan for a return to in-person instruction.”

He commended the tremendous efforts of Sierra Sands staff and community partners who have endeavored to make the challenging transition as smooth as possible.

Of some 5,100 students who began last year, only 49 dropped off at the beginning of this year.

“We have attempted, without being invasive, to reach out to families to find out why they were not returning to Sierra Sands — whether it was a lack of options in our district or some other reason,” said Wythe.

“Some people wanted to find a way to offer their children in-person instruction. Some people wanted a different online platform. But this was still a relatively small number of students and families who did not return.”

The state put out guidelines for how districts would operate in the virtual environment.

Wythe said that the majority of parent responses on surveys indicated that families wanted the closest possible model to in-person instruction.

Accordingly, the year began with a rigorous two-way Zoom format on a fixed schedule. This “synchronous” format offers delivery of materials, instruction and assignments in real-time.

However, Sierra Sands just recently approved for teachers to incorporate “asynchronous” time allotments to allow for independent learning and a break in the regular school day for teachers to execute non-teaching related tasks.

“Overall, I have been very impressed with everyone who has put in long hours working to make sure we have the best curriculum and education platform possible,” said Wythe.

“I believe we have not only uplifted, but implemented district-wide, what was once considered an impossible achievement.

“Like anything new, there is room to improve — and we will continue to identify concerns and improve our practices. But I think we have been highly successful in our early efforts.”

While Distance Learning has some drawbacks and limitations compared to an in-person environment, Wythe said that officials are also trying to find the strengths of the current system, and leverage those for the benefit of students.

“With just about everything there is a loss or a gain, and this is no different. One of the most positive things that has come out of this is allowing us to expand everyone’s capacity and knowledge of a technology that has been sitting in front of us for years,” he said.

“Engaging with these tools on a daily basis is improving our student’s abilities and preparing them for some of the possibilities in their future careers.”

As legislation moves forward, said Wythe, school officials will continue to monitor how some of these tools may be integrated into future platforms of educational delivery in order to better serve students.

Just as the Distance Learning model is sub-optimal for some students, it may be an improvement for others.

“Anytime you have such a dramatic change in a mayor system — and education is about as massive a system you can find — this kind of shift does not come without hardship,” said Wythe.

“Education is a moving target, and the needs of people and communities change over time. But one thing I am hopeful we can capitalize on is that our district can be more fluid in our ability to provide high-quality education with more flexible options for the community we serve.”

Pictured: Kevin Wythe, Lisa Decker and Michelle Savko work through the new metrics to gage student engagement in Distance Learning. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-09-11