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Phoenix school district finds surprising success with remote learning

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Posted at 8:10 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 00:29:55-05

In Mr. Barbuto's 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts class, logging on and learning has become routine.

Barbuto teaches at Thomas A. Edison Elementary in the Phoenix Elementary School District, one of a handful of districts in Arizona which has been closed in in-person classes since last March.

FULL COVERAGE: Safely Back to School in Arizona

When the school first closed its doors, students say, it was a struggle -- but not now.

"I was actually doing a little bad last year but compared to this year I'm doing good," said Oscar. "Mainly because of the teachers and how they set up everything online, it makes it easier for us."

For kids who've struggled with social awkwardness, teasing or bullying, remote learning has actually helped.

"My teachers are all really supportive of my goals and ambitions," said Victor. "That makes me more comfortable expressing myself online."

The Phoenix Elementary School District serves one of the highest percentages of low income students in Arizona, a population which has traditionally struggled academically. The district, however, took a different approach to learning during the pandemic.

"This whole summer in the beginning of the school year, the focus wasn't what do we do when we get back," Barbuto said. "The focus was how are we going to make online learning as successful as possible."

The school spent CARES Act money to pay teachers over the summer break to develop a program specific to the district. The relief money was also used to purchase laptops and hot spots, to make sure every student had access.

Two weeks ago, Barbuto's classes took a district assessment, and the results were encouraging. Out of 65 7th and 8th graders, 60 exceeded growth in the subject matter. "According to the data, the students are doing well. They're learning language arts just as they would learn language arts of the classroom," Barbuto said.

Like many districts, the results have not been as encouraging among younger students. Teachers say they remain anxious to get back in the classroom, with hopes the vaccine will allow schools to re-open safely.

Parents and teachers will have a better idea of learning loss, and the effects of remote learning, when students take the AZ M2 test in April. Governor Ducey has signed an executive order suspending the state's letter grade system for schools, citing anticipated learning loss from the pandemic.