Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts to move to remote learning, Polly Ferguson said her fifth grade grandson could not read or grasp basic math concepts.
That changed after 15 months of one-on-one tutoring and online school. But as school districts phase out online learning in favor of returning to in-person instruction, Ferguson worries all her efforts will go to waste.
Ferguson, 62, taught her grandson Zade Lineberry for five hours a day at the start of the pandemic, with hopes to catch him up to speed with the rest of his class. She spent countless hours researching lesson plans and visiting Hicklebee’s Childrens Books to find books to teach him how to read.
As a result of her hybrid approach, 12-year-old Lineberry was able to test properly as he entered sixth grade at John Muir Middle School instead of filling in random answers and waiting to turn it in. Ferguson said Lineberry improved more in the short span of remote learning than in four years of being on an Individualized Educational Plan in the San Jose Unified School District.
“Just being able to read, and just knowing that he could read the science textbook was amazing for him,” she told San José Spotlight.
SJUSD spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said the district will only offer two options for students this fall: full in-person instruction or independent learning through Liberty Alternative School, which has expanded to incorporate all grade levels.
In June, the school district announced it would no longer offer its home study program because the current education code does not mention it as an acceptable option. Families enrolled in the home study program had until July 1 to choose to enroll in the independent study program, attend full in-person instruction at a district school, enroll in a private or charter school or do homeschooling.
Families who did not choose by July 1 had their children automatically enrolled in Liberty Alternative School for independent learning. Independent learning is based on the individual student’s needs and is taught at their own pace online, with a structure personalized for the student.
“It really kind of is holistically an alternative approach for students that maybe the traditional classroom isn’t working for,” Maddox said.
The decision to expand independent learning follows a proposed state bill that, if approved, will require all California public schools to offer independent learning options for students who do not feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction.
Maddox said that while the district does not have specific numbers yet, it expects more students to enroll in independent learning than in years prior to the pandemic. In a survey sent to district parents at the end of the 2020-21 school year, approximately 200 students expressed interest.
More information about how to enroll in Liberty Alternative School will be sent out next week, according to Maddox.
While still technically within SJUSD, students at Liberty Alternative School are isolated from the rest of the district. Students enrolled there cannot attend in-person district events and are not tied to an in-person school.
Ferguson worries that only offering full in-person instruction or independent study will leave behind students like Lineberry. She believes sending him back to school full time will make him fail again.
“It would be like sink or swim and we know he would sink, it would just be like how far would he sink?” she asked.
But she doesn’t want to enroll him in independent learning either because she believes it will isolate him from his friends and community at school.
“The Liberty option just cuts him off from everything, cuts him off from his school community and cuts him off from any friends that he’s made throughout the years,” she said.
Ferguson wants a hybrid option available for students like Lineberry, so he can go to school in-person part time to keep his community connections, while still being provided one-on-one support at home.
“My grandma made me write out this quote in homeschool: ‘Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible,’” Lineberry wrote in an essay reflecting on his struggles in school. “In my case this is true.”
Near the end of this past school year, Ferguson said she sent a letter to the district asking for a hybrid option. She received a letter back that said hybrid learning would no longer be available and the district would discuss it, but never received an answer after the school year ended.
In the future, Ferguson hopes her grandson will be able to return to school in-person full time, but for now, she said he needs more time to grow.
“I don’t have unrealistic expectations for him,” she said. “I just kind of want some support for another transition year for him.”