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‘We’re not learning anything’: Kennedy High students frustrated with software that subs for a Spanish teacher

on April 26, 2024

For students at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond, a teacherless classroom is nothing new. Many kids start their day in the library, huddled over a calendar that shows teacher absences for the day. Teacher vacancies impact various subjects, but Spanish classes have been particularly difficult to fill. In response, the school has turned to Edgenuity, an online learning software that delivers pre-recorded instruction and has been at the center of controversy in recent years.

Edgenuity is a stop-gap solution as the school searches for a permanent Spanish teacher, said Raechelle Forrest, West Contra County Unified School District interim communications director. The school has two Spanish teachers and one vacant position. 

John Zabala, president of United Teachers of Richmond, said one Spanish teacher at Kennedy will typically see around 140 students across all their classes. The students who do not have a licensed teacher as a result of this vacancy are learning Spanish through Edgenuity. 

“While the district is working to fill the vacancy, students are able to participate in an engaging and interactive Spanish course under the supervision of a substitute teacher or period sub to ensure that the students are able to receive and complete their assignments,” Forrest said.

‘It’s terrible … a joke’

Edgenuity offers instructional videos and activities in a variety of school subjects. Though the company has stated its lessons are designed for supplemental learning, schools in WCCUSD facing teacher shortages have contracted with it to sub for qualified educators. But many students dislike the program because the lessons are pre recorded, so they cannot ask questions or get real-time feedback from an instructor. 

According to the district’s 2023-2024 Local Control Accountability Plan, Edgenuity is a part of WCCUSD’s $1.2 million effort to deliver supplemental instruction programs. By publication time, the district had not responded to Richmond Confidential’s Public Record Request for the Edgenuity contract. The request was filed on April 9 and after the 10 days allowed by law for the district’s response, Richmond Confidential followed up with a call and an email that went unanswered.

Noah Mogey, an English and English language development teacher at Kennedy, has become familiar with Edgenuity, supervising a Spanish class during his prep periods. The school grants each teacher a prep period for non-teaching obligations like lesson planning, assignment grading, and interacting with other teachers. They are paid extra to sub during these free periods. 

Mogey knows some Spanish, so he can help students with questions, but he said not every student gets a supervisor who is familiar with the language. Mogey believes Edgenuity offers insufficient tools to truly learn Spanish and that no pre-recorded lesson can replace a real teacher. 

“It’s terrible. It’s a joke,” Mogey said. “And I just sit there because I’m not credentialed to teach Spanish, but legally they needed someone to be there.”

Students find class ‘pointless’

Ninth grader Janna Nievarez said it’s difficult to stay motivated when there is no teacher or lecture, and that the homework feels “pointless.”

“It’s just not a way that I learn properly, and so I haven’t really learned much in that class,” she said.

During the pandemic, schools across the country partnered with Edgenuity to address teacher shortages, providing students with virtual instruction for core and elective classes. But with no live lectures or real-time instructors, parents felt their kids were not learning as much as they could. Edgenuity dismissed critiques of product quality, saying it is up to districts to supply the qualified faculty needed for students’ success, and that some districts were not implementing the software in the way it was intended.

For 10th grader Laura Leon Hernandez, learning Spanish is significant. Her parents are Mexican, but they never taught her the language. As she grew older, she became eager to learn Spanish. Last year, she moved to Richmond from San Lorenzo, where she had completed her freshman year. Not having had the opportunity to take Spanish at her old school, she looked forward to the prospect at Kennedy. 

“I wanted to take Spanish to hopefully not lose that part of my heritage,” Laura said. 

But what she thought would be her road to Spanish fluency turned out to be a disappointment. Her class only started implementing Edgenuity in November, so for the first part of the year, she said she was not engaging in any Spanish curriculum. Before November, her Spanish period typically was spent in different teachers’ rooms each week, where she and her classmates would “do nothing.”

“Sometimes they put on movies for us,” she said. “But for the most part, we just sat and did nothing.” 

Janna and Laura describe themselves as diligent students with college plans. But they’ve watched some of their peers slip through the cracks. They say most students simply “coast” to pass the class.

“It’s easy to cheat, so a lot of students just use Google Translate on all their assignments,” Laura said. “We’re not learning anything.”

Other challenges at Kennedy

Mogey doubts the students would be prepared to prove Spanish proficiency, should they need to for post-high school opportunities.

He said pressure is building as he struggles to make sure his students stay afloat.

“We’re approaching a cliff,” Mogey said. “Everyone is off track.”

Union members continue to work with the district to address the vacancies at Kennedy and other schools. Last year, the sides approved a new teachers contract that included salary increases intended to make the district more competitive. But Zabala said filling vacancies at a “high needs” school such as Kennedy, where the percentage of families living below the poverty line exceeds 30%, is more challenging. 

The California School Dashboard ranks Kennedy High School poorly in all categories measured, including suspension rate, graduation rate, college and career readiness, and English and mathematical proficiency. Just over 78% of the school’s more than 800 students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, defined by the state as students who receive free or reduced meals or have parents who did not complete high school. Hispanic students make up 73% of the school, followed by Black students at just under 18%.

“A lot of the time when you have schools with underserved Black and brown students, you tend to have these issues attracting quality teachers,” Zabala said.

Mogey believes teachers stay at Kennedy because of a duty to prepare the next generation for success. 

“I have a whole bunch of people who show up on Monday morning who deserve a rich learning experience,” he said. “I’m not going to let these problems get in the way of me serving those kids.”

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