Students in Stowe, Morristown and Elmore will be able to choose between two different grading options at the end of the school year, after a swift backlash against the Lamoille South decision to mostly do away with grades in a year upended by a global pandemic.
The school board voted 6-1 Monday to allow students to choose whether they want their grades to be count toward GPA — the traditional method — or opt for the new system: pass with distinction, pass, incomplete, or no record. Students would have to consult with teachers and guidance counselors.
The opposition was mostly Stowe-centric, led by parents and children in one of Vermont’s wealthiest towns — with a high school regularly ranked as one of the best. This seeming gap informed the one nay vote for the choice measure, cast by Morristown board member Stephanie Craig.
“No,” Craig said. “I’m voting for the voices of the children who were not heard tonight.”
Superintendent Tracy Wrend has faced fierce criticism in the past two weeks from the community and some board members for changing the grading policy without a board-level discussion. Wrend in turn said her hand was forced after “misinformation” about the grading changes leaked.
Stowe board member Erica Loomis, who earlier this year voted against renewing Wrend’s contract — Stowe member Tiffany Donza was the other anti-Wrend vote — said she thought Wrend circumvented the board in announcing the grade change.
“It says to me we weren’t important enough to be kept in the loop about a decision of this magnitude,” Loomis said.
Board chairman David Bickford, himself a former school superintendent, uncharacteristically scolded Wrend for “stoking confusion and anxiety.” Bickford said he believes the administration’s decisions were based on science, but he felt he needed to vote based on politics.
“Let’s face it, a genie got out of the bottle,” Bickford said. “When I cast my vote, it will be based on what brings these communities together, rather than driving wedges based on who is perceived to have and have not.”
Voices heard, sort of
Monday’s school board meeting tested the limits of teleconferencing, with as many as 105 participants at one point filling the virtual Zoom room.
Most of them had their video and audio turned off, but dozens didn’t, leading to all manner of sonic glitches. The feedback squeals were so loud and so frequent that one could watch participants cringe and yank their headphones off in discomfort.
The board and Wrend chose to meet in person around a table in the Morristown Elementary School library, so all of them were wearing masks that further muffled their voices and hid the evident emotion felt on all sides.
Despite the technical difficulties, plenty of parents and children made their voices heard. Sentiment was overwhelmingly in support of grade choice, and came mostly from Stowe.
Sara Opel said her Stowe son is actually bucking the trend and having a more successful experience with distance learning. Opel said, “Sitting in a classroom is not going to be the only option for every single child.”
The parents of Stowe High student Isaiah Schaefer-Geiger asked how it was equitable to “bring up an entirely new grading system in an email,” rather than publicly vet it.
A Stowe junior who only gave her first name, Natalie, said if it came down to two students, one with a “pass” grade and one with a numeric grade, “I think we all know which child the college is going to pick.”
Concerns about college acceptance were somewhat dismissed by Val Sullivan, the school district’s curriculum coordinator, who said colleges across the country are going to be looking at grades in the 2019-20 school year “with a skeptical eye.”
Peoples Academy senior Eli Smith, one of the few advocating for the simple pass/no-pass system, echoed that. He said a lot of the discussion “comes from passion, and passion comes from anger.”
Betsy Rich advocated for “advantages for all and disadvantages for none,” in opposing choice.
A plan derailed
Wrend said the decision by her staff and the school principals to go to a more basic pass-or-not system for second semester and yearlong courses was needed because students across the district were struggling with distance learning.
Schools have been closed since March 18, and Wrend said she and her curriculum and assessment team started right away to do research on how best to handle year-end grading.
Sullivan said inaccurate information about the grading change got out to the public early, just as staff members were working out details on realigning the grading system across the schools, which “truncated” the rollout.
“This was troublesome to me” and other staff, Sullivan said.
Wrend shared snippets from 19 pages of survey results about parents’ and students’ thoughts about online learning. A sampling:
• “We have horrible WiFi. We’re both working. I don’t need notifications saying my child isn’t ‘in class’ when all of her work is completed and she simply can’t log on. That’s not fair for her or us.”
• “Ease up on homework. Kids need time to unwind.”
• “Do not require a student to do video chat/meets. Some teens do not like to be photographed or on video. Anxiety and depression sets in quickly when teachers are constantly on them about checking in that way while dealing with the rest of the changes in the world.”
• “Fail them if they don’t do work.”
• “It would be great for parents to hear from a teacher every once in a while.”
Stowe board member Tiffany Donza acknowledged these are “extraordinary times,” but parent survey data isn’t strong enough to go on.
“Just because there are inequities isn’t reason enough to change the grading system,” Donza said.
This story was updated to correct a commenter's stance on grade changes.