A community member walks at the track outside of Franklin High School in South Seattle.

Citing Under-Enrollment, SPS Outsources Grade 6–12 Virtual Learning for 2021–2022

by Ari Robin McKenna

Last week, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) announced to parents via their newsletter that the Virtual Option Pilot Program (VOPP) would be limited to kindergarten through fifth grade. Sixth to 12th graders who want virtual learning options will be given a list of suggested external virtual programs. This walked back a June 17 announcement that the VOPP would be K–12 and drew immediate criticism from the Seattle Education Association (SEA).

In a recent conversation with the Emerald, Dr. Concie Pedroza, SPS associate superintendent, cited low enrollment numbers for the K–12 pilot, the complexity of middle and high school course offerings, and resulting staffing challenges as primary factors in the district’s decision.

In an SPS student survey conducted late last school year and filled out by about half of all middle and high schoolers, 6% of the high schoolers and 7% of middle schoolers indicated they would like to continue with fully remote learning in the future.

Pedroza said the district’s goal was to accept around 300 K–5 and 300 6–12 students into the pilot, but as actual enrollment numbers trickled in, the 6–12 pilot stopped making sense. Less than 150 6–12 students enrolled, and Pedroz said they would be spread thin across six grade levels and many programs.

A former K–5, K–8, and high school principal, Pedroza drew a distinction between running K–5 and 6–12 virtual learning programs. She said it is much easier to mix grades at the elementary level, whereas in middle and high school “it’s much harder to blend programming and blend the courses for students to actually get the credits that they need.” Pedroza was also surprised to see there was not a VOPP enrollment spike among the 3,000 or so unvaccinated incoming 11-year-old sixth graders — who still aren’t yet on the county’s vaccine calendar

In a press release last Thursday, Aug. 5, the SEA rebuked SPS for backing off its “commitment to provide a virtual option for middle and high school families this fall” and alleged that SPS “pulled out of negotiations and prematurely announced the elimination of the secondary virtual option without informing us at the bargaining table.” SEA’s statement also read, “We know that a disproportionate number of families choosing the virtual option were families of color and we feel that it is fully within the purview and the responsibility of SPS to meet these students’ needs.” While the demographic statistics about who enrolled for VOPP are not yet available, a Department of Education Survey conducted last year clearly showed that families of color were significantly less likely to send their kids back for in-person learning during the last school year in every measured demographic group. 

Pedroza didn’t shirk away from SPS’ need for growth in providing equitable learning opportunities. She mentioned her son, who is Latino and Arab, and has a disability. She says any academic program, virtual or otherwise, should be able to honor her child’s entire identity. When pressed about whether SPS’ decision to limit the VOPP deprioritized students of color, she said: 

“I’m a parent in the system and I understand. It’s not the best answer, but it was the best in terms of what we need to do to support families. It’s hard enough to be a parent of a Kid of Color in any system — and not just Seattle Public Schools, any district — we need people to be honest with us, and what Seattle is trying to do is just be really authentic, and saying, ‘Look, we can’t meet your needs, but we’re going to help you figure out what the best thing you need to do for your kid is. It’s not about staying in our enrollment, it’s about making sure you get what you need to support your child in the best decision, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Enrollment for SPS’ K–5 VOPP continues until Aug. 13, and 6–12 graders’ families can check out the SPS-vetted list of virtual learning providers. Although all are free and ostensibly public, some rely on actual educators more than others. Federal Way Internet Academy, for example, has been around since 1996 and has 30 full-time teachers on staff, while others will effectively be taking part of their public money and handing it over to companies like Edgenuity.

Pedroza said the district’s focus has quickly shifted to assisting families with their decision-making process. “We’ve had our customer service office, our ombuds office, our special education department, and our McKinney-Vento departments are all calling families [in grades 6–12 who had enrolled in VOPP]. They started the day after the information went out. I believe on Monday [Aug. 9] we’re calling families that we couldn’t get ahold of. And we will call everyone until we personally talk to every family … And in fact I can share that on Thursday, every special education family that was listed on that list was notified.” Pedroza says the district is also planning follow-up phone calls for families that need it to provide personalized guidance, and she says some of those calls will be made by program experts or educators from their child’s local school.

📸 Featured Image: Following school closures in March 2020, a community member walks at the track outside of Franklin High School in South Seattle. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

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