By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
The halls of Harrisonburg High School are quiet these days — but not totally empty.
The bell rings, and a few students file out to get lunch. Two congregate at a vending machine, joking in Spanish. In an open atrium by the cafeteria, a smattering of teenagers sit, spaced out at individual desks, masks on, working on laptops. This is the access center – where students can come in during the school day for more reliable internet or a more controlled space than they might have at home.
The access center is open Monday through Friday and typically hosts between five and 20 students at any given time. It is one of several interventions Harrisonburg City Public Schools has employed to help salvage an academically challenging semester of online learning. When school administrators saw the midterm grades that came in during the high school’s first quarter, they began calling families directly.
“We do have a higher failure rate than last year,” said Pat Lintner, chief academic officer. This has been mostly concentrated at the high school, where Lintner and other division staff have been “trying to unearth exactly what caused some of these failures.”
For students, the access center has offered structure and consistent internet access.
High school junior Johnathan Correa said he started coming in at the beginning of the school year but stopped for a while “because I thought it was the same as being home,” he said.
“But my internet at home isn’t the best, and I get distracted really easily,” Correa said. “So me and my dad thought it would be better to come here every day. It helps me stay focused more, because I feel like I’m at school instead of being in the comfort of my home.”
While Correa said his cybersecurity fundamentals class is still a bit challenging, and all the subjects are harder online than in person, “my grades are doing way better than they were in the first quarter.”
Siaura Saville, a high school athletic trainer-turned-online-learning-troubleshooter, monitors the access center every day.
“I think the kids are making the best of the situation they have at hand, and they’re really trying as best as they can,” Saville said.
After seeing a higher rate of failing grades halfway through the fall quarter, school officials began reaching out to families of students who seemed to be struggling.
“You always go straight to the family” with an academic intervention, Superintendent Michael Richards said.
They heard a variety of issues from parents and guardians: some had been more hands-off with their high schoolers’ academics, while focusing more on helping younger children in the family. Some had poor internet access. And others just had too much going on in the house, with students and adults still working jobs — including many working from home — during the pandemic.
Communicating with families, deploying mega-wifi routers and mobile hotspots throughout the city, and opening the access center seems to be paying off. At the fall quarter’s midterm, 28% of all grades issued in high school classes were Fs.
By the quarter’s end on Nov. 2, that rate had dropped to 18% – not as good as last year’s rate of 11%, but markedly better than where the grades were weeks earlier.
“I believe we are trending in the right direction,” Lintner said.
Online learning has opened up some students
Some students with autism, though, are blossoming through online learning. Lynda Chandler, coordinator of the Industry Partners Program at JMU’s College of Integrated Science and Engineering, has seen this with her son, Valor.
The Citizen spoke with Chandler last summer – as she trepidatiously anticipated his entrance into high school, worried about how her son would handle an overcrowded environment. And in the classroom last year, Chandler remembered his teacher, Lisa Long, saying “‘he just doesn’t talk at all, he just sits very quietly. I call on him in class and he just says he doesn’t know.'”
“That is not the kid that I see at home!” Chandler would say. “My kid doesn’t stop talking at home!”
But after the shift to online learning, Chandler said his teachers now get to see the talkative kid she was describing.
“He likes sameness, he likes predictability, and because he has so many sensory issues, you know, being in an overcrowded high school is just overwhelmingly challenging for him,” she said. “For me, this is a silver lining. Because yeah, we’ve been kind of cooped up at home, but I’ve seen my son flourish.”
Valor became so invested in school that he set up part of his bedroom as an office, where he often sits with his friendly “bowling ball of a cat,” Barclay, during class sessions.
Chandler, like many working parents, has had to perform some schedule acrobatics during the pandemic. She can work from home in the morning and has arranged for someone to stay with Valor and his sister, Honor, when she goes to her office in the afternoon.
This Thanksgiving, she said, “I am very thankful that my son is in a great school and his teachers are fantastic.”
One of those special education teachers, Lisa Long, said Valor isn’t the only student who’s come out of his shell during this time.
“A lot of my students have a lot of social anxiety, and I thought … maybe they are just quiet also. Well now that we’ve been online, I have a few students with autism who are just talking up a storm,” Long said. “It’s amazing to me. I feel like I’m getting to know them on a more personal level. I’m getting to see the real person that they are.”
Long has taught her students to use email and tell time to help them navigate online schooling.
“The life skills we have learned are unbelievable,” she said. Her students have been so academically engaged this semester that she actually plans on integrating some online learning into the classroom after the pandemic.
“Their true abilities,” she said, “have really shone, being on the computer.”
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