By Bob Skolnik
Last November, the principal of Riverside-Brookfield High School reported to the school board that approximately 35 percent students were on track to fail at least one first-semester class, describing the situation as "alarming."
But when the dust settled and final grades were handed out, it appears that a concentrated effort by school administrators, teachers and students had cut the actual failure rate to just 7.3 percent.
The school took a number of steps to reduce the failure rate. Teachers made it easier for students to make up work by consolidating assignments and giving students opportunities to improve their first quarter grades.
Administrators allowed some students to come to the school building to do schoolwork if they needed a quiet place to do schoolwork or get extra help at a time when almost all students were doing remote learning. Administrators also reached out to students with failing grades and encouraged them to complete their assignments and turn their work in.
"We reduced the failure rate to 7.3 percent of our student body having one failure or more, which brings us very close to pre-pandemic numbers for failures," said Principal Hector Freytas at the Jan. 12 meeting of the District 208 Board of Education. "I want to thank the students for all their hard work; I want to thank the teachers and family members for really coming together. That is a big achievement and I'm very proud of everybody."
Teachers were encouraged to reopen their first-quarter grade books to give students opportunities to improve their semester grades and apparently were told not to fail any student who had to quarantine during the first semester.
"They leaned on us pretty hard to make those F's go away," said one RBHS teacher, who asked not to be identified because of fear of retribution from the administration or school board and concerns that there is no right answer to the dilemma of how to grade during a pandemic in which many students are struggling. The teacher added that they did not feel any direct pressure to change specific grades.
The number of F's given this year was in line with previous years and was slightly lower than the number of failing grades reported one year ago, during the pre-pandemic first semester of the 2019-20 school year.
This year 233 F's -- 2.3 percent of all grades -- were handed out as final first semester grades, compared to 251 F's -- 2.4 percent of all grades -- one year earlier. Two years ago, in the first semester of 2018-19 school year, teachers handed out 203 F's, or 2 percent of all grades.
For the current school year, 120 students received at least one F as a final first-semester grade, according to a preliminary report prepared after some teachers wanted to know the racial and ethnic breakdown of the students who received failing grades.
For the students receiving at least one F during the first semester, 46 percent were white, 42 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent Black.
According to the most reason state school report card, 53 percent of all RBHS students are white, 37 percent are Hispanic, and 5 percent are Black.