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State Gives Virtual Academy in Iowa Low Marks

Data from the Iowa Department of Education shows that students at Mason City schools improved in several categories compared to last year, but in many areas continues to fall well below state averages.

virtual learning_shutterstock_41579209
Shutterstock/Anatoly Vartanov
(TNS) — State data from the Iowa Department of Education shows that students at Mason City schools improved in several categories compared to last year, but in many areas continues to fall well below state averages.

The Iowa School Performance Profile gives each school a rating based on several factors, including standardized test scores, attendance, staff retention, graduation rates, and suspension rates. At a glance, the recently released 2023 data shows that Mason City schools falls behind the state average in categories measuring graduation rates as well as growth in English language arts and mathematics.

The district has a total enrollment of 3,320 K-12 students spread out at eight physical campuses and a virtual academy.

Each school receives a score up to 100 and is placed in one of six categories: exceptional, high-performing, commendable, acceptable, needs improvement, and priority.

Jefferson and Hoover elementary schools were designated as "high-performing" and "commendable" respectively.

John Adams Elementary, Lincoln Intermediate, Mason City High School earned "acceptable" ratings.

Alternative School, Harding Elementary, Roosevelt Elementary "need improvement"

Mason City Virtual Academy dropped in performance compared to last year in all categories, this year scoring a 39.7 out of 100, targeting the Virtual Academy as a priority. The state's average score is 54.81.

Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Bridgette Exman said that the district saw, " ... incredible gains in student-student relationships, adult-student relationships, and clear boundaries/expectations. In some places, we saw double digit gains with results that are higher than state averages. That's certainly not to say there isn't still plenty of room to improve, but rather evidence that when we target an area for improvement, we can and do make positive change."

Proficiency scores in mathematics and English language arts are all areas well below state average at the Mason City Virtual Academy, which, as the lowest-performing school in the district, was targeted as a "priority" by the state.

Mason City Virtual Academy was established in August 2021 during the COVID-19 emergency through ESSER funds, and allows students to continue learning virtually instead of going to a physical classroom.

Students use Chromebooks and Google-based technology for their assignments. Teachers use Google Classroom as the web-based platform, which enables them to create an online classroom area in which they can manage all the documents that their students need. Documents are stored on Google Drive and edited in its apps, such as Google Docs and Sheets.

As the pandemic-related funding slowly expired, the board in April 2023 approved to restructure Mason City Virtual Academy to now fit under the Alternative Education program, and to eliminate virtual learning for K-6, making in-person learning the only option for elementary students.

"Engagement of some students has been difficult; virtual academy has not been a good fit for a few students at this age level," Superintendent Pat Hamilton said. He cited data that shows with only 11 students enrolled, one teacher retirement and the programs' cost exceeding revenue, returning to in-person learning was "best for all students K-6."

Moving the virtual academy to alternative learning, Hamilton added, made sense because many of the students enrolled virtually are utilizing individualized instruction plans and credit recovery, " ... things that the alternative coordinators are already equipped to handle."

According to research compiled by The Hechinger Report, which covers inequality and innovation in education, studies show that lost in-person classroom time reduces social and emotional skills, hinders academic progress and can decrease a student's likelihood of graduating; and, consequently, lower levels of education can lead to lower employment and financial prospects in adulthood.

Chronic absenteeism in the district was 9.8 points above state average, with 35.4% of students missing 10% or more school days for any reason, excused or unexcused.

Absenteeism among students was found to be disproportionately higher among students who identify as Black/African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Hawaiian/Pacific islander.

Exman said, "This issue is right at the top of our priority list, since kids can't learn what we're teaching if they aren't here. We have contracted with Attendance Works this year to lead district and community conversations (starting in November) to understand the root causes of the attendance issues we see here in Mason City and to develop a plan that is proactive and community-wide to get more kids in school every day."

Finally, postsecondary readiness index, measuring students' readiness in preparing for life beyond high school was the lowest-scoring category for the district, showing a 37.67% success rate in all categories:

1. Participation in a college entrance exam and ACT or SAT score

2. College level, postsecondary or advanced coursework

3. Career and technical education (CTE) concentrators

"This is an interesting data point that seems to confirm what we have anecdotally tracked," said Exman, "Fewer students intend to attend a four-year college or university upon graduation. This data point only looks at ACT/SAT, which typically doesn't include students who intend to enroll in a community college or go directly to work or some other path, such as an apprenticeship program or the military. I read this is support for the work-based learning and school-to-work connections we have been working to build for our community. It also supports the idea that we need to expand our career and technical education programming with more efforts like our recent addition of a welding program."

© 2023 Globe Gazette, Mason City, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.