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'What Are You Feeling'? Superintendent Asks Seniors About Grading, Graduation, and What Comes Next

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It's a really hard time for high school seniors.

Remote learning is allowing them to set their own schedules and work at their own pace—a good preview of college for those who are going.

But there's angst about not seeing their friends and teachers every day. There's uncertainty about whether they'll get any of the end-of-year rituals that should be capping their four-year high school careers: prom, Hall of Fame Night, senior class trip, and graduation.

Joe Meloche, the superintendent of the Cherry Hill Public Schools in Cherry Hill, N.J., wanted to hear how his seniors, who he usually talks to in regular, face-to-face advisory sessions, are doing. He's hosting Zoom calls with them, asking how it's going, how they are feeling.

Then he lets them talk.

Noor Baig, a senior at Cherry Hill High School West, said she's finding that school work takes a little bit longer to complete, and there is a lot of screen time. But her Advanced Placement classes are up and running—though they're different from the lecture-style classes she's used to—and she credits the district with getting ready early for the move to online learning.

"There's so much more eyestrain," Noor said in a virtual townhall last week with 10 of her classmates, Meloche, and Cherry Hill High School West Principal Kwame Morton. "I, myself, would love to be back in the classroom." 

Jack Begley likes the independence that comes with having all his lessons posted on Monday and working at his own pace through the week. Sleeping in has been a nice option, he said. 

"It's a lot like college," Jack said. "You kind of operate on your own schedule. I like it more. I can take a break for 30 minutes and then go eat something."

Huddling regularly with students to let them air ideas and offer constructive criticism is a hallmark of Meloche's leadership in Cherry Hill. He solicits students' feedback on a wide range of issues, from possible grading policies to upcoming district initiatives.

Last week, their faces popped up on the screen, in that all-to-familiar Hollywood Squares grid. They Zoomed in from their bedrooms and living rooms, and for nearly an hour, they talked to Meloche and Morton about everything that coronavirus has upended.

'Waiting for This to Be Over'

Grades came up. So did the volume of assignments. Cherry Hill had planned to use a complete/incomplete option for grading, but revised its approach, going with grade ranges. For example, if a student got between zero to 50 or between 86 and 100 on an assignment, they'd get the higher grade in each case.

Madison Girgenti liked the change grading, saying it "would be more flexible."

"It's a hard transition," she said.

Noor said some students were still working amid the pandemic and having that flexibility in the grading system was reassuring.

The seniors had lots of praise for their teachers. They told Meloche and Morton that teachers were willing to make adjustments on assignments, including giving them a few more days to finish them. They said teachers had been responsive, regularly responding to emails. One teacher, a student said, had set up a phone number for students to text questions or concerns and was responding right away. 

Madison said some teachers have posted videos, an especially welcome thing amid the social distancing measures.

"It's nice to see everybody's faces," she said. "You feel a little more connected."

Olivia Hafner told the school leaders she's struggling with the work-at-your-own pace approach. She asked if teachers could pace out the lessons during the week, instead of putting them all out on Monday. Others nodded.

"It stresses me out so much... It's just so much at once," she said.

Morton said the idea of posting all the assignments on Mondays was to give students time to organize their week and spread out the work over the week. "But I can understand it and respect" your concern, he said.

Morton asked Jack how he was doing because he's generally active in several clubs and sports, including swimming, lacrosse, and hockey.

It's tough, Jack said.

"You don't get to talk to anybody. The only people I've talked to [recently] face to face are my mom and my sister. That's not enough....I'm just waiting for this to be over."

Anxieties About Prom, Graduation, and Senior Rituals

 But it was the senior-year rites of passage that were most on the minds of students. 

The class trip to Florida is up in the air, prom is still scheduled for June 4, and graduation, tentatively scheduled for June 16, is still uncertain. There's also the yearbook signing, spring concert, the art show, and other events the students were looking forward to sharing with their family and friends before bidding adieu to the Class of 2020.

"We are committed to celebrating this class," Meloche told them.  

Ideally, they'd be walking across the stage at Temple University in Philadelphia on June 16, but Meloche asked them to consider other options: an in-person ceremony later in the summer; a virtual ceremony; an outdoor ceremony; and the possibility of even pushing the commencement event to the winter break, presumably when many students who've left for college return home.

"What are you thinking, what are you feeling?" he asked.

Noor said students would be willing to postpone graduation, but only by a few months. She offered up the results of her unofficial social media poll which found that some seniors would be willing to put off  graduate to late July or August. By winter break, students would already be months into college, she said.

"So many kids are against virtual graduation," she said. "All of us worked so hard and dreamed about this day. It's so important to so many people, and I think it's something that we want to celebrate with our class."

Maria Mousa agreed that making graduation an in-person experience is really important.

"I feel like I'll remember it more if it's in person rather than on the computer," she said.

Some proposed having it on the outdoor field, where many members of the class had played sports.

"At this point, we've had so much disappointment," said Bridget Meloche, who is also the superintendent's daughter. "I feel like most people would be willing to wait and have graduation."

In the grand scheme of things, students were willing to make some tradeoffs. 

"This happened to us," Olivia said. "There's nothing we can do about it. It's just no one's fault. We should pick our battles. Graduation is more important than senior trip."

But it wasn't just about them and what was happening this school year. Meloche also wanted to know about what the district should be thinking about and planning for the following year.

Noor suggested the district might want to think about what a delayed opening or starting the new academic year online might look like for incoming freshmen.

"It's making sure that everyone feels safe going back to school," said Jon Balagtas. "You guys have been good about mental health and making sure that everyone is OK."

The district should continue "actively pushing those resources once everyone gets back into school," and letting students know there are counselors with whom they can speak and other ways to get help," he said.

As the town hall wrapped up, there was a moment of shared appreciation.

"It's nice to see friendly faces, people I'm comfortable being around," Angelina Cosme said. "It's kind of boring being alone."

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