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Far too many students were skipping online classes and failing this fall at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, one of the poorest districts in the nation and that the state had declared in “academic distress” before the pandemic.

As absences increased through the holiday season, that “academic distress” was only getting worse.

“We saw students struggle in the remote period,” said Henry Pettiegrew, CEO of the district of 1,800 students at Cleveland’s border. “We saw students disengaging. We saw students not logging into classes. We had students and we couldn’t find them.”

So he and Shaw High School Principal Larry Ellis took a bold step. When they opened the district’s only high school to students in January, they took the online learning option away from almost every one of the school’s 600 students and ordered them into the classroom.

“Our students are having a hard time,” Ellis recalled thinking. “Let’s bring them all back.”

Students could only continue online classes only if they had attended 80 percent of their classes and were passing them, a standard only 15 percent of students at Shaw have met. Students also had to agree to a “contract” with the school, that they would keep up with with their lessons.

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That attempt, which has had mixed results, breaks from two national trends during the pandemic – school districts prioritizing a return for the youngest students, and districts letting parents and students pick between in-person or online classes.

More than 500 students at Shaw who didn’t meet that criteria, about 85 percent of the school, all had to return to school in-person two days a week starting Jan. 19.

By mid-February there were encouraging signs and some shortcomings. Attendance at the school still isn’t where officials want it to be. Though Ellis said about 250 students came to school the first week, that has dropped to about 200 now.

“You can mandate that they come, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to walk in the building,” Ellis conceded. “But the push is to have students come in.”

Story continues

Students who are back at the school say they prefer being in class with their teachers and peers to being at home..

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