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Fort Smith schools grows 'on track' program

by Thomas Saccente | February 22, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.
The Fort Smith School District administration building Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FORT SMITH -- The School District has broadened its efforts to help students struggling during the covid-19 pandemic.

Deputy Superintendent Martin Mahan told the School Board during a meeting earlier this month the district expanded its OnTrack initiative to K-12 students since the winter break.

The program, launched in the fall, initially focused on students in grades 10-12.

Superintendent Terry Morawski told the board in December the district discovered during the fall some of its students were struggling or disengaged with school because of the challenges with the pandemic.

"We wanted to take action and work hard to develop a plan to get our students back on track," he said.

Ginni McDonald, director of secondary education, Feb. 8 provided a breakdown of the students in grades 9-12 who are recovering lost credit in the OnTrack program from the fall semester needed for graduation. This includes 176 seniors, 432 juniors, 326 sophomores and 241 freshmen -- about 17%, 41%, 30% and 24% of all students in those grades, respectively.

"These students are served through our GradPoint, which is an online program credit recovery system, or students can also choose the basic school, which some people call night school," McDonald said.

Basic school runs from 4 to 7 p.m. with face-to-face instruction, she said.

McDonald said at the end of the fall semester, the district had 155 seventh-graders, or about 13% of the total, who had "F" grades in one or more classes. This was also the case for 171 eighth-graders, or about 15%.

Mary Ann Johns, the district's director of elementary education, said the K-6 schools are facing some of the same problems as those on the secondary level.

These 19 schools had a combined enrollment of 7,740 as of December. These schools had 6,901 students learning on site, with 315 of them, about 5%, having one or more "F" grades. Of the remaining 839 students in the district's virtual option, 253, or 30%, had at least one F.

Keri Rathbun, principal of Northside High School, said teachers can sign students up for periods in which they need extra help. The school was able to make this period more effective this semester by moving it from eighth period to the middle of day.

Todd Marshell, principal of Chaffin Junior High School, said teachers there are meeting with students before school to help them complete assignments. The school is encouraging students to come at 7:30 a.m. for this service. The school is also heavily promoting its after school tutoring program.

Marshell reminded parents last week to check their students' grades. He also reminded them the school offers after school tutoring free Monday through Thursday.

Each elementary school principal was asked to develop a school action plan, which Johns said would provide a tool for them to reflect and "look at some things that they might do differently."

Velmar Greene, principal of Howard Elementary School, said her school has always had a strong relationship with both its students and the community. However, the covid-19 pandemic caused the school to shift more of its focus to the safety of all involved.

"What we noticed once Dr. Johns asked us to start looking at the data and the why behind why are these children failing, and as I met with my leadership team and my guiding coalition, everything was all about relationships," Greene said. "The kids need to have a relationship."

Thomas Saccente can be reached by email at [email protected]

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