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St. Louis area schools see rise in failing grades amid pandemic | 'A dramatic change'

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ST. LOUIS ( -- A News 4 investigation revealed a shocking number of students are failing high school at districts across the St. Louis region. We asked local districts to provide grades numbers and we're seeing the strain virtual learning has put on students in our area. 

"Before all of this pandemic started, she wasn't struggling like this," Keri Hickman said. She has a freshman daughter in a south St. Louis County high school and her story is like many others. 

Pre-pandemic, Hickman considered her daughter a strong student. Then, virtual learning became her daughter's unwelcomed reality. "It was three or four classes she was struggling in," Hickman said. 

Generic empty classroom

Not only is Hickman's daughter a freshman adapting to high school, she's also having to do it online. "If they had a question, they weren't able to ask because it was muted on the other side so the teacher could get through the curriculum, and to me that was frustrating," Hickman said. 

The biggest struggle for Hickman's daughter has been staying focused, and her grades reflect that. "I looked at her report cards compared to what she was doing in school, and it was a dramatic change," Hickman said. 

Hickman said it's been hard to watch her daughter struggle this year. Data from local school districts suggest Hickman and her daughter are far from alone. News 4 requested failure rates among high school students from nine area districts in Missouri and Illinois. We wanted to compare failure rates pre-pandemic to now. 

In the 2018-2019 school year, 26% of students in the East St. Louis District failed two or more classes. The total was similar in the 2019-2020 school year but reached 44.4% this year. That total only reflects the third quarter so far at the district. 

"[Parents] feel like the year has been a big waste as far as learning for their students."

"A lot of kids are at least a year behind. So, that's going to be working trying to catch up almost two years at once," Donna Aggugelo said.

Aggugelo taught in the classroom for more than 30 years. She's now the Olivette Sylvan Learning Center Director. She says the phones are ringing off the hook as parents desperately look for help. 

"Parents are all saying that the students are well behind, that they're at least a grade level behind, maybe two. They feel like the year has been a big waste as far as learning for their students," Aggugelo said. 

In the Parkway School District, the number of students failing two or more courses in the fall semester has more than doubled between the 2018-2019 school year and this year. 

St. Louis Public Schools are seeing a similar trend. In the 2018-2019 school year, approximately 12% of students failed two or more classes. Last year's numbers were similar.  In this year's first semester, 23% of students are failing. 

Of the nine districts we requested data, Mehlville School District had the biggest spike in failing students. 

In the 2018-2019 school year, 3% of its students were failing two or more courses in the fall semester. For the 2020 fall semester, it was nearly 20% 

"Filling this gap is just going to take time, and I think parents need to be aware, and I'm sure they are, that their students could possibly be behind. Not because of their own fault, but because of the situation we were all thrown into," Aggugelo said. "No one was prepared for this, I can't see how anyone can blame anyone."

Districts across the region say they're offering students support. The Belleville Township District developed academic intervention days designed to help struggling students get more one-on-one time with teachers. A spokesperson for Mehlville says they have offered additional support throughout the entire school year. 

In East St. Louis, students will start summer break late. They are going an extra month to get caught up. 

While these failure rates are high, educators say, parents shouldn't be overly worried. "We're getting through this life-threatening time, and now we move into the next part. So, for students who haven't done well, and I don't want to say failing, but they didn't do well in a few courses, in the big scheme of things, that's not going to make a big difference," Byron Clemons explained. 

Virtual learning

Clemons is the spokesperson for Local 420 Teachers Union. He says teachers have done all they can to ensure kids get as much out of virtual learning as they possibly could. 

For parents like Hickman, it's her job to worry. She's also trying to remain optimistic and hoping her daughter's in-person sophomore year is better. 

"It's extremely difficult for both the parent and the child. I think encouraging words and finding resources or another student who can help them is going to be a great outlet for them," Hickman said. 

News 4 asked the Missouri and Illinois Education Department's how they plan to measure students' learning this year. In Missouri, kids have or will be taking map testing. That provides a snapshot of their academic progress and compares it to other students across the state. 

Illinois is giving a similar statewide assessment. We're told we won't know the results of this academic progress testing until sometime next fall. 

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved


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