Nearly half of students in DeKalb school FLEX Academy are failing, investigation finds

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — A Channel 2 Action News investigation has found that DeKalb County school officials are deeply concerned about the potential for a high number of failing grades in the district’s online FLEX Academy program that enrolled nearly 3,600 students last fall.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher uncovered a district document that showed nearly half of the students’ fall semester grades were failing as of late last week.

The grades aren’t final because the district has moved the deadline for Flex students.

[READ: Investigation finds more than 150 DeKalb County teachers were not paid for entire semester]

Students in the rest of the DeKalb County school system were required to submit their first semester work by Dec. 17, but school officials have repeatedly moved the goal posts for FLEX students.

The district says that’s because Flex got off to a chaotic start in August-September of last year.

“We messed up first semester, so we’re making up for it,” online boss Keatra Wright told Flex faculty early this month.

Channel 2 obtained a link to the video of the meeting which enabled us to report on the troubles.

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FLEX Academy students are largely on their own. They are not looking at teachers over Zoom. They get their assignments and are supposed to turn them in on time.

In many cases that is not happening. How much of that is the fault of the students and how much the fault of the chaotic and mismanaged start last semester is hard to measure.

But Wright is heard in the video we viewed that mismanagement by the district was so severe that students had to have extra time to finish their fall work. The calendar tells the story.

Online students were initially extended from Dec. 17 to Jan. 14 to complete their work. Then DeKalb County Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris ordered that the deadline be moved to Jan. 24.

In a statement this week, the district told Belcher some Flex students will have until Feb. 1, nearly a month into the second semester.

That’s in sharp contrast with what we heard in that early January video.

Wright told her teachers then, “We’re trying not to do a full blast and say, hey, you’re going to have more time. Hey, you’re going to have more time.”

One teacher in that meeting suspected that students were gaming the system, taking advantage of the district’s lenience with deadlines.

“They have to take responsibility. We cannot wait for the last minute and then they start turning in all the assignments,” the teacher said.

DeKalb County Schools sent Belcher a lengthy statement Thursday with responses to his questions:

FLEX Academy for Success and Innovation opened its virtual doors to students on Jan. 5, 2017. The Academy expanded rapidly due to the pandemic, and just as other districts, we have faced challenges but pivoted swiftly to benefit our students. It is our goal to stay in constant communication regarding employee concerns and other matters regarding FLEX Academy.

One teacher’s concerns about any tampering with her gradebook;

The gradebook of record for the DeKalb County School District is Infinite Campus. The teacher is responsible for assigning the grade for any assignment or assessment in IC. Only the teacher of record has access in Infinite Campus to manage the gradebook for that class.

For FLEX Academy, APEX is the system where students review the content, as well as complete assignments and assessments. These scores are stored in a “gradebook” within APEX.

FLEX Academy has a programmatic practice of allowing students to resubmit assignments as content is mastered. FLEX Academy utilizes designated staff (counselors and paraprofessionals) during the school day to reset assignments to providea quicker response to the student’s request. The designated staff members do not have direct oversight of students, teach, or enter grades in the official gradebook. During the meeting, a concern was expressed about designated staff being allowed to reset/unlock assignments. FLEX staff explained that adjunct teachers are not available during the day to reset assignments, so the programmatic practice allows students to continue learning at that time without an extended delay.

This does not change the grade, nor were any alterations made in Infinite Campus, the district’s gradebook of record.

Concerns about students who have done little or no work and how they and their parents will respond to failing grades;

FLEX Academy sends out a weekly Coaching Report and Missing Assignment Report to all parents and students displaying the status of all assignments as well as the students’ current grade.

Teachers made phone calls to parents regarding grades. Specialized focus was placed on those students who had little participation and missing assignments. FLEX Academy sends out weekly reports to local school administrators and counselors detailing student progress.

FLEX Academy staff also hosted two parent meetings to increase parental awareness. Also, FLEX Academy shared parent newsletters on October 1, October 11, and November 15.

What to do if a teacher offers a tutorial and no students take advantage of it;

FLEX Academy is an asynchronous program which means students and teachers interact with the system and content at different times. This was communicated to all parents desiring to enroll their children into the program.

In order to provide synchronous or live instruction, each teacher is expected to facilitate a tutorial twice a week. Although student-teacher interaction is not always simultaneous, the courses are designed to ensure feedback and support are provided to support student learning.

Concerns about no “crashing anybody’s graduation or graduation rate”

All schools analyze students’ academic progress toward meeting graduation requirements and accomplishing their goals. When high school students are unsuccessful, schools implement credit recovery opportunities to support the diverse needs of students. There are instances where schools authorize “incompletes” for students to have additional time to master the course content and/or make-up missed assignments.

After collaborating with parents, students, counselors, high school principals, and district-level leaders, a plan was developed to support our scholars who experienced difficulties not only at the beginning of the semester but throughout the course.

The District acknowledges that some students had challenges with accessing technology and content, transitioning to virtual learning, facing trauma as a result of the pandemic, and balancing responsibilities at the beginning of the semester.

Although students are held accountable for their work, the hardships faced during the first weeks of the program were acknowledged, and students were provided extensions to ensure enough time to complete coursework.

Concerns about how to hold students accountable for their work while also trying to make up for the fact that the district “messed up.”

The district acknowledges that there were challenges faced the first weeks of the program. As a result, the students were provided extensions to ensure enough time to complete coursework. All DCSD students will continue to be held accountable for their work.

Your statement yesterday indicated that “grade posting…was completed on January 14.” How can that be if some students have until Feb 1 “to complete coursework?” Also Dr. Cates notified Flex faculty Jan 13 that “…students have until January 24th at noon to submit and complete assignments.” Her note said the superintendent ordered that extension.

The superintendent did not “order” an extension. The original posting deadline for all teachers in DCSD was January 10, 2022. Report cards were made available to all DCSD students and parents on January 14, 2022.

As a result, all teachers had to have their grades posted by this date. Students in FLEX who were given an extension were assigned a grade of “I” for Incomplete as a placeholder. Once the extension window closes on February 1, 2022, the students receiving “Incompletes” will receive their final grades. The grades will be posted on the students’ transcripts.

Finally, we have a document dated January 14 showing that there were 21,145 grades at that times, and 11,412 were passing grades. That is about 54%. Put another way, there were 46% failing grades at that time.

Per the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), the District must safeguard student information.

This was a confidential report provided to teachers to identify students who needed additional assistance and qualified for the extension as of the date of the report. Targeted support, including but not limited to credit recovery and regional-based tutoring, has been and will continue to be provided.

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