Grades start to improve in Salt Lake City School District. But don’t expect pre-pandemic scores.

There is some progress — and hope — in the latest data.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High lets out on a rainy day on Monday, April 26, 2021. Salt Lake City School District has seen an improvement in grades, including at its high schools, since students have begun returning for in-person learning this spring.

Student grades have started to rebound in Salt Lake City School District after taking a dramatic dive this fall when learning was entirely online due to the pandemic.

The most recent academic term ended in March when students were back in school in person for the first time. For that period, about 500 fewer middle school and high school students received an F than at the beginning of the school year. And those who got all F’s on their report cards decreased by 90%.

Elementary students saw some progress, too, with their return to the classrooms. The number of kids graded “needs improvement” — the lowest mark for K-6 — decreased by 10 percentage points in reading and writing. There was also a decline, overall, in how many kids fell below grade level.

The hopeful numbers come from data received by The Salt Lake Tribune through a public records request.

The scores are still lower on average than pre-pandemic levels. The impacts of COVID-19 on education will reverberate here and across the nation for years, especially for students from marginalized communities.

But the learning gaps and academic setbacks that existed for many do, at least, appear to be shrinking slightly in the state capital.

“It’s a small reason to celebrate, though we’re certainly not out of this yet,” warned Chelsie Acosta, a teacher at Glendale Middle School, where half of the students still received at least one F for the third quarter — down from 61% in the first term.

“It’s been survival mode,” she said. “We’re just at the very start of seeing improvements from huge declines. We need to take everything we learned the hard way this year and make sure that we move into a better space that’s equitable for everyone, where everyone can get caught up.”

The special case of Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City School District has been under the microscope this year.

It was the only district in Utah to begin in the fall with its students continuing with virtual instruction like they did when classrooms first shut down last spring. That decision from the district’s board of education came despite parent protests and as cases of the coronavirus gripped the capital city, especially ravaging the zip codes of the west side.

There was a significant downturn in performance as students remained remote for the first term of the year, with first quarter running from Sept. 14 to Nov. 9 for secondary students and the first trimester for elementary through Nov. 20. Grades dipped much more in Salt Lake City than in the other four districts in the county where most kids returned in person, according to the data analyzed by The Tribune — though those districts also saw declines.

Salt Lake City is starting to chip away at the deficit now after being pressured to return to classrooms. It has a lot of ground to cover.

“It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time,” Acosta said.

The district reopened its doors in January and February, about halfway through the most recently completed term. Spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin says she believes the return to the classroom is at least part of the reason behind the improvement.

“The answer is probably yes,” she said. “Being back in person has especially helped us better meet students’ social and emotional needs, which contribute to grades.”

But she and other education experts say it’s hard to pinpoint just one cause. And it’s likely a combination of factors.

Those could also include the pandemic and anxiety over it waning and students getting used to an unusual year after facing disruption in the earlier months.

“Now the shift for teachers and students can really be the learning that’s happening,” said Jennifer Throndsen, director of teaching and learning for the Utah State Office of Education. “That probably took a little bit of a backseat at the start of the year.”

The improvement in grades could likely be attributed, too, to some students getting more accustomed to learning online — and teachers getting better at delivering instruction that way. After all, about half of the term where grades got better was online. And 8% of students in the district are still choosing to stay remote.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Even though most of the 21,000 kids have returned in person in Salt Lake City, it hasn’t solved every issue, either — for Salt Lake City or other districts in Salt Lake County, which are also seeing slight improvements this term but aren’t back to where they were before the virus.

High schools

For the first quarter of the school year this fall, 364 middle school and high school students in Salt Lake City School District failed all of their classes. The number had never been so high.

Until the second quarter smashed even that record.

Then, 411 students failed every course. Most of those were high schoolers.

“We knew we had to do something to intervene,” said Jared Wright, the principal at West High. “I was worried a kid could get so buried they might throw their hands up and say, ‘I can’t dig myself out.’”

He paused. “We were at risk of not having students graduate. A lot of these kids were seniors. We had to act fast.”

The district quickly shifted its focus to high schools, Wright said, as one of its first efforts after seeing the steeply declining grades.

And by the end of the third quarter, which wrapped up at the end of March, the district was able to get the number of students with all F’s down by about half — to 191. That’s still a roughly 300% increase from the first quarter for the 2019-2020 school year — a year prior to the pandemic, which had an unusually low 50 total failing students. It represents just 2% of the district’s approximately 10,500 secondary students.

Wright sees it as a significant improvement in a short period of time. And a big chunk of the progress came from West High.

Getting students back in the classroom this most recent term helped, Wright acknowledged. And most of that was due to finally getting in touch with those who wouldn’t respond before when school was entirely online.

The principal believes parents often see their high schoolers as more self-sufficient and capable of getting their work done; some took advantage of that and did nothing. Others were given too many responsibilities, like taking care of younger siblings and not having time for their own schoolwork.

“Being in person — that’s had an impact,” said Wright, who has long advocated for that option. “We can check in a little bit more.”

Students started returning two days a week and are now at four days.

Shifting the grading system

But Wright said it wasn’t just being in person that helped; even before that, it was rethinking and shifting the grading system to meet student needs.

West High previously had 121 students in the first quarter this year who failed all their coursework. By the third quarter, it had one of the lowest totals in the district with just five, a decrease of 116. East High also had a decline in F’s.

The principal noted that he didn’t want to undermine what grades meant or the rigor required to earn an A or B. But he didn’t want the scores to be used to disadvantage already disadvantaged kids. He didn’t want an F to ruin a student’s future after an already difficult year.

So students who may not have finished every assignment but who could show proficiency in a class in another way — either by testing well or sitting down with a teacher to prove comprehension — could earn a “pass” grade instead of an F in the third quarter.

That would still award them credit for a course without hurting their grade point average. That means they wouldn’t get off track for graduation.

Wright said that helped a lot of students who were struggling to stay on top of online work.

“The train was still moving. The clock was still ticking,” Wright noted. “Classes and time carry on even during the pandemic. This was a way to help more students falling behind.”

West High also stopped failing kids who never logged on for online school, which included many refugee students. Instead, they got a “no grade” or an incomplete. That doesn’t award credit, but it also doesn’t impact GPA. And students can make up those classes later and have a new grade put in its place when they earn one.

“An incomplete grade essentially holds the train for a minute for you to catch up,” said Holley McIntosh, a member of the administrative team at Salt Lake City School District that oversees teaching and learning, adding onto Wright’s metaphor.

If a student chooses not to make it up, the grade will become an F, but the district is hoping that doesn’t happen. At East High, for instance, there were fewer F’s than before; but there were more incompletes to try to help students have a chance to make up the coursework.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The three traditional high schools in the district will be offering rigorous summer school options to help students recover credits. There will be about 30 teachers participating at each school.

McIntosh said the district is also providing more after-school tutoring and has partnered with the University of Utah to have its graduate students help high schoolers with their math homework, in particular. And Horizonte Instruction and Training Center has begun operating a 24-hour hotline for students in the high school to call whenever they need help.

“It’s not about just passing everyone,” Wright said, “because that doesn’t help anyone.”

Middle schools

Middle school students have also seen progress. There were 1,613 students in Salt Lake’s middle schools who received at least one F during the first quarter this year. During the third term, that declined to 1,562.

That’s 51 fewer, compared to high schools, which saw about 450 fewer. But middle schools saw 68 fewer students fail all their classes, a rate comparable to high schools, based on population.

Throndsen, who is at the Utah State Office of Education and has a daughter attending middle school in Salt Lake City, said she’s happy to see the improvement. She has noted that these years, usually seventh and eighth grade, are among the most difficult for students — even without adding COVID-19 into the mix.

The transition from elementary to junior high is particularly challenging, where students shift from having one teacher to seven. Moving that experience online made it even harder.

And she suspects it’s likely going to take longer for them to reengage fully than some of their older peers.

Sally Fiefia said it had taken a little bit of time, but her daughter is starting to get back into a rhythm by returning to school in person.

Attending seventh grade online was not easy for her. The young girl at Clayton Middle School dreaded staring at a computer screen for class, hated searching for her assignments — and often couldn’t find them, got frustrated easily and distracted even easier.

“To say she struggled would be putting it lightly,” said Fiefia, who signed onto a lawsuit pushing Salt Lake City School District to reopen in person.

Her daughter started the year failing at least three classes and joining the 236 other students at her school — about one-third of the population — who also got one or more F’s.

Since she returned in person in February, Fiefia’s daughter now has mostly As and Bs. Her lowest grade is one C in math. And the total for students failing a class has been reduced to 162 for the third quarter.

Clayton was one of the middle schools that had seen the sharpest decline in the fall. This spring, it’s seen the most improvement, reducing failing grades by 11 percentage points.

Throndsen said the critical part of returning in person for middle school is socialization. Students there are at an age where talking to their peers really has a huge impact on their social and emotional health — which, in turn, impacts academics.

“Seeing your friends in a virtual environment just isn’t the same,” she said.

Chatwin said the district realized that after the first quarter and started having some middle schoolers come back in person in small groups. Grades improved even with just that little change.

It worked especially well at Glendale Middle, which used its library as a study hall to spread students out at a distance. The school also adjusted its start time.

Glendale Middle had 14% of its students failing after the first quarter. The school analyzed the numbers and discovered that most of those were coming in the first classes of the day when many students weren’t logging on. Chatwin said the principal there decided to start those classes later in the morning and saw more joining in.

The percentage of those flunking entirely has now been reduced to 9%. Those with one F decreased from 60% to 54%, too. It was at 24% prior to the pandemic.

It’s not a huge gain, but it’s moving the needle in the right direction. Salt Lake City, Chatwin added, has tried to study the first quarter, look at what didn’t work and learn from it.

Elementary schools

Some of the biggest gains this spring have come from elementary students. They originally saw the steepest slides in the fall when Salt Lake City was holding classes online.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

McIntosh, who oversees teaching and learning, said many concepts were harder to teach younger students through a screen. And it took time for teachers to adjust.

Some kids were too young to know how to read yet, so navigating virtual classes was hard. Attention spans for kids are shorter and easily tugged on by computer games, pets or siblings. And, if there wasn’t a parent in the room to keep things on track, a lesson could quickly come off the rails.

That contributed to more elementary students — 7% — getting scores of “needs improvement” for the first trimester; it was 2% the year before. Elementary students in the district go to school on a trimester schedule instead of quarters; the second trimester ran from the end of November through the end of March. And the grading system is slightly different, but a “needs improvement” mark is like an F.

Additionally, a whopping 32% fell below grade level, compared to 24% the previous fall.

But now, they’re starting to catch up and, in some places, even surpass pre-pandemic levels. Overall, about 4% are in “needs improvement.”

And fewer first and second graders, for instance, are now below grade level than in 2019. And, after reading and writing scores really suffered in the fall, they’re now better than before, too.

Previously, about 40% of kids were not proficient in reading and writing. Now, it’s 31%. In 2019, it was 33%. The district is starting to cut through the learning losses and make up ground.

McIntosh said there was a large focus on reading and writing after the first scores came in. Teachers started to find ways to teach reading, for example, just by having students log on for class — such as reading the buttons they needed to push or typing in the chatbox.

“Those are challenging subjects when you add the online instruction,” McIntosh said. “We got better and better in students engaging with it on a needs basis.”

There were large gains in science, as well, though math grades stayed fairly level. And, overall, more students were also graded “exceptional performance,” which is like an A.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

There continued to be some struggles for the oldest students in elementary, fifth and sixth-graders. Those kids made improvements from the first trimester of this year but are not back to where they tested in 2019.

McIntosh said the learning is rigorous for those students. And some have been asked to care for younger siblings while they were home with online learning. Chatwin said she knows of a sixth-grader who’s been taking care of her 3-year-old sister this fall while her single mother is working at an essential job. The family’s daycare provider caught COVID-19 and has had a difficult time recovering.

Acosta said she’d seen it, too, with siblings showing up in the cameras when a student is on Zoom, including some holding babies while they work. Others help their siblings with classes during the day and then log on at night to catch up on their own lessons.

Inequalities persist

There are continued inequities in areas where kids are failing most, according to The Tribune’s analysis.

Four of the five elementary schools that had the most students graded “needs improvement” were on the west side and are designated Title 1, meaning they’re in areas where the concentration of poverty is the highest. Those are Jackson Elementary, Meadowlark, Newman and Parkview. The fifth, Nibley Park, is on the east side.

Though all of those schools showed improvement from the fall, three of them were on the list then, too. Jackson, for instance, went from having the highest kids in “needs improvement” with 17.14% in the fall to 10.67% this spring. That’s still the highest now. And it means 1-in-10 kids is failing there.

McIntosh said they started bringing in some of those kids for small groups before elementary schools reopened in January — slightly before junior high and high schools.

The district has also beefed up its after-school tutoring program and hired additional paraprofessionals to help get students on track in those schools.

“We continue to support these schools and address student learning needs,” McIntosh noted.

Additionally, the middle school in Salt Lake City that continued to slide this latest term — Northwest Middle — is also on the west side and has one of the most diverse student bodies. About 87% are kids of color.

It went from 59% of students getting an F or incomplete in the fall to 65% now.

Chatwin said that area of the city has been particularly impacted by the virus, with many families getting sick and losing loved ones. More parents there are also essential workers.

The district, she added, offers counseling support to help with students’ emotional needs.

So what’s next?

The other districts in Salt Lake County are also seeing improvements in their grades.

Granite School District went from having 14,000 students with one or more F’s in the first quarter this fall to 11,000 now. And it saw improvements across all of the junior highs and elementary schools that had been failing at the highest rates.

Nearly every high school there, too, saw a decrease in students flunking.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Murray School District saw progress at its one high school, Murray High, where about 400 students out of 1,500 got at least one F — down from the first quarter.

Both districts say they’re still seeing higher rates of failure in those students who have chosen to remain online, even though the schools have offered in-person classes since the start of the year.

For instance, at Murray’s elementary schools, 60% of those online got a “needs improvement” grade. Of those in person, 3% did.

For the third quarter, Granite School District had 1,216 students with all F’s. Of those, 825 were doing school entirely online.

“The overwhelming majority of them are distance learners,” said Ben Horsley, the spokesman for Granite. “And there’s just a total failure to connect.”

(Jordan and Canyons school districts did not yet have third-quarter data available to compare.)

But as the year has gone on, more and more students have been returning to the classroom for face-to-face instruction and grades are starting to improve overall, like in Salt Lake City. And by next fall, the districts expect few will likely remain online.

Being back in person isn’t a cure-all, said Acosta at Glendale Middle. There are still long-term impacts from the pandemic that will need to be addressed, inequities that should be fixed, gaps that could be closed. Attendance, overall, is down, as is assignment completion.

“Even being back in the building, we still have these large number of students who are failing,” she said. “We’re not back to where we were. It’s going to take some time to get there.”

Acosta would like to see continued investments from all districts in tutoring programs and support to focus on academic setbacks, especially with students of color. And Chatwin said summer school will be a good option for families to start catching up on credits.

Even bolstering what is offered online is one avenue, she said, as it works better for some students.

It could take years to get back to grades seen before the pandemic. But the improvements now are a start, seeing fewer F’s among students in a difficult year.

“And so,” Acosta said, “we just have to get on our ‘A’ game.”

—Tribune reporter Andy Larsen contributed to this report.