Amid pandemic, more DeKalb Schools students move on to next grade

The DeKalb County School District headquarters, at 1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain (AJC FILE PHOTO)
The DeKalb County School District headquarters, at 1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain (AJC FILE PHOTO)

The DeKalb County School District saw more students advance to the next grade level in a year altered by the coronavirus pandemic, according to data released by the district.

Individually, some schools saw dramatic increases in the number of students who did not advance to the next grade. Some schools saw no students held back, despite significant numbers in previous years.

Stacy Stepney, the district’s chief academic officer, said much of the success was due to the “hold harmless” agreement the district put in place, which meant online work done amid the work-from-home portion of the school year could only improve upon the grade a student had on March 13. The state’s move to waive several requirements — including Georgia Milestones, which also factors into whether students advance to the next grade — also played a role.

“COVID-19 caused all educators to think about how we serve our students,” Stepney said. “What does the education setting look like? We had to stretch our limitations. Things that we thought were limitations were no longer limitations.”

According to the newly released data, received from the district through a Georgia Open Records Act request, the district promoted all but 2,722 of its 97,296 students, a retention rate of 2.8%. During the 2018-2019 school year, the district retained 3,148 of its 97,683 students, a 3.2% retention rate. The district did not provide grade-level data, though it was requested. The numbers could improve after students fulfill requirements of summer programs currently ongoing to help those who did not advance to the next grade level meet missing requirements.

Druid Hills Middle School, which saw 77 students held back during the 2018-2019 school year, had no students held back when final grades were computed for the school year that just ended. This was also the case at Rock Chapel Elementary School, which had 66 students held back the previous year. Some high schools — including Lithonia, Miller Grove, Cedar Grove and Columbia — also saw vastly improved statistics over the previous year.

Several High Schools — including Chamblee, Dunwoody, Martin Luther King, Redan and Tucker — saw increases in the number of students not advancing to the next grade.

Stepney said many increases came as the district changed where some data ended up. Previously, information on students who are part of the International Center — a program used to transition international students into their home schools — was reported as part of the program’s data. Now, that information is reported under the home school, including when a student does not advance to the next grade level.

The district shifted to online learning as government officials pushed for school buildings to be closed to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 2.3 million in the United States, with more than 120,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stepney said other initiatives will continue in future years to aid students, including summer learning programs tackling math, reading and transitioning English Speakers of Other Languages students into their neighborhood schools.

Our plan “wasn’t just what are we doing for COVID-19,” she said. “It was what are we going to do for our kids for the summer. Let’s make sure they have the foundation … to continue to support them.”