ELLSWORTH — “It has everything to do with attendance,” Ellsworth High School Principal Dan Clifford told school board members on Jan. 12. He was referring to the current 20 percent failing rate among students, a number that provides a stark comparison to the four to eight percent failing rate that is the norm.
High school students split their school days between in-person and remote learning—attending classes at home via technology where they observe and, to some degree, participate in classes in real-time.
Except that many do not tune in, Clifford said. And, by choice, roughly 100 students are full-time remote learners, although he noted that number was going down, likely due to falling grades among those students.
“Students are disappearing for weeks at a time,” he said, and reaching parents is not always easy.
Clifford’s report was one of several given at the meeting after Chairwoman Jennifer Alexander added updates on the hybrid program to the board’s monthly agenda.
For kindergarten through grade four students, elementary Principal April Clifford said that in-person time is crucial for students—and teachers. “Teachers really value that in-person time,” she said, as students are struggling to keep up with learning standards because of the hybrid model.
“When you’re talking to those teachers, are there any steps we can support and help with that would help bring those students up to speed?” Alexander asked.
“It’s a hard piece,” Clifford replied.
Middle school Principal Erica Gabianelli said, based on fall data, her students have “missed some standards along the way.”
All three principals said they continue to create new ways to engage students.
For special education students, Director Carol Ann Mceachern-Murphy said caseloads were “untenable,” citing the need for additional staff. She said attendance was lacking, especially for remote learners. “IEPs [Individual Educational Plans] are designed for five days a week in a brick-and-mortar school,” she said.
The 331 students with IEPs, or 504 plans, that provide accommodations for students with disabilities, represent about 24 percent of the total student population, board member Paul Markosian pointed out. “The students we’re talking about tonight is a substantial number and that’s also why the need for more support is so—”
“—I think that’s indicative of a number of things,” Superintendent Dan Higgins interjected. The pandemic increased special education numbers, he said, and “the quality of our special education department” means families move to the district to enroll their children.
But Mceachern-Murphy had encouraging words as well, noting that students, parents and teachers are all becoming more digitally competent. “We really knew there would be challenges but what I couldn’t predict was the tenacity of the students, parents and teachers.”
One program supporting the hybrid model is the partnership with Down East Family YMCA, which takes enrolled students on remote-learning days. The school district used pandemic relief monies to fund the program, and fears of that grant ending with the Dec. 30, 2020 deadline to spend federal relief funds evaporated after new legislation extended that deadline to Dec. 30, 2021.
Higgins also noted the Governor Mills’ proposed biennial budget includes a $45 million increase for K-12 schools. “That’s positive news at the outset. How that distribution formula works and what Ellsworth ultimately will receive, we don’t know that yet.”
Higgins added: “We are highly cognizant of the fiscal environment” caused by the pandemic and said the 2021-22 school budget “will be crafted with those challenges in mind.”