In Hazelwood's $8.2M Experiment, the Teachers Are Miles Away, on a Screen

This year, the St. Louis County district quietly began using for-profit company Stride to provide on-screen instruction — with temps to maintain order in the classroom

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click to enlarge Kid staring at screen
Hazelwood School District is using Stride, a for-profit education management organization, that provides teachers who are hundreds or thousands of miles away to teach kids virtually.

This past August, as students across the metro area returned to school, pupils in one of St. Louis County's most stressed-out school districts found themselves at the center of a big experiment.

Even as the pandemic-related shift to virtual education has receded across the U.S., Hazelwood School District has attempted to solve a teacher shortage by doubling down on screens and remote learning.

More than 4,800 Hazelwood students, nearly one-third of the district's pupils, have been assigned to classes where they're in person, but instead of having a teacher in the classroom, they have an aide (or, in some cases, a Kelly Services temp) to maintain discipline. The actual teacher might be hundreds of miles away, conducting the class remotely on a screen.

It's an experiment whose outcome is far from known but which holds important implications not just for the middle school and high school students in these classes but for practically every school district in the St. Louis region and beyond.

It centers on this question: By spending millions of extra dollars per year on a for-profit provider of real-time (or "synchronous") virtual teachers, can a school district like Hazelwood compensate for an unprecedented shortage of in-person teachers — a shortage with no end in sight?

It's an expensive, high-stakes gamble. The for-profit company providing the virtual instruction has set up a remote learning system far more expensive than normal classroom teachers — nearly $80,000 more per classroom than the salary and benefits package of the average Hazelwood teacher. Yet Wall Street has bet big on its model (see sidebar, "Wall Street Loves Stride, Despite Critics and Controversies").

The experiment is underway with virtually no publicity at a time of extreme challenges for Hazelwood.

The district is already facing a burgeoning crisis over the discovery of radioactive waste that has led to the indefinite closure of one elementary school. A recent district request for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to test all Hazelwood school facilities could result in more school closures — a major, unbudgeted problem for a district where tax revenues are flat and reserves are dwindling.

Another potential risk that must be taken into account: a major push for remote learning could widen educational disparities by race — a key concern for Hazelwood, where 80 percent of the students are Black and more than 60 percent qualify for free- and reduced-priced meals.

Tyra Williams, a Hazelwood East junior, is taking Spanish through a virtual teacher. She gives the class a thumbs down.

"I feel it's, like, messy," Williams says. "You can never get your stuff in. Because we don't have a real teacher."

Williams says she's complained to her mom.

"She says, 'Try your best,'" Williams says. "I just try as best I can. But if you don't know something there's nothing you can really do."

click to enlarge Students on a school bus in Hazelwood.
Several students in Hazelwood said Stride classes were less engaging than ones taught by in-person teachers.

Hazelwood's big push for virtual teaching began, at least formally, in early June.

That's when school administrators came to grips with a dose of bad news: There were 83 teacher vacancies in the district's high schools and middle schools. More than half of these vacancies — 44 — were in middle school math, science and English, according to a district memo provided to the board of education at its July 19 meeting.

What to do?

Enter Stride Learning Resources of Herndon, Virginia.

In August, Stride signed a deal with the district to provide 50 virtual teachers for the 2022-23 school year.

The deal's annual cost: more than $8 million — or about $5 million more than if the district were to hire traditional in-person teachers, according to a school district internal analysis.

Hazelwood Communications Director Jordyn Elston disputes the $8.2 million price tag of the Stride plan, but declines to break down the costs or state what the district considered the Stride program's true cost, either per classroom or overall.

In an email to the RFT, Elston says it is "untrue that the current cost is $8.2 million as that would assume all costs are at the maximum estimates plus some. It is also untrue that no information was disclosed to the Board. All staffing is approved annually by the Board as part of our operational budget."

Certain things are important to know about Stride.

Stride is what is known as an EMO, or education management organization. It is the biggest EMO in the nation.

Stride's services are not cheap. It costs the Hazelwood School District up to $160,000 for each classroom taught by virtual Stride teachers, who, while certified as Missouri teachers, may live in other states.

That's while the average annual Hazelwood teacher salary is $63,000.

With eight Stride-taught classrooms at Hazelwood East, the school district plans to spend almost $1.3 million providing virtual teaching at Hazelwood East alone.

The costs break down to about $93,500 for Stride, plus $125 per student per Stride semester course license, and between $35,000 and $50,000 for each room's "in-class" facilitator, with the higher figure if the facilitators are hired through Kelly Services, the temp agency. The facilitators are not hired or supervised by Stride, but their duties include helping answer student questions about online lessons, as well as taking attendance and making sure students stay off their phones and remain in class.

Another thing to know about Stride is that it is one of the nation's largest and oldest providers of K-12 online instruction, with about 174,000 students combined in its general education and career learning programs. It has provided education services to more than 2 million online students over the past 20 years, according to its latest investor guidance.

It is a for-profit, publicly traded company that is experiencing rapid growth. The company describes its mission as helping "learners of all ages reach their full potential through inspired teaching and personalized learning. We do this by providing clear pathways for learners to expand their skills, explore their options, and change their lives."

Its rising fortunes have occurred during a time when it has aggressively expanded its brand by spending millions of dollars nationwide on political donations and lobbying expenditures in both Congress and state legislatures nationwide. Over the past two years, the company has spent $2.5 million lobbying lawmakers, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan database of lobbying and campaign expenditures.

Wall Street loves the company, in large part because its timing could hardly be better. At the end of the 2021 fiscal year, Stride posted revenues of $1.69 billion — a 9.8 percent increase over the year before. James Rhyu, the company's CEO, made nearly $7.7 million in salary and bonuses for 2022. (A Stride spokesman notes that the package includes $5.1 million in performance and time-based stock awards that "may, or may not be paid out.")

Some teachers trying to reach Hazelwood pupils through Stride's network of screens have had a less glowing assessment.

Sheila Soleau worked for Stride for a month, teaching seventh-grade math at a Hazelwood middle school until her termination in late September under contentious circumstances.

A big problem was the lack of organization, says Soleau, who taught from her home in Huntington Beach, California.

"The thing is, we were given no information about the schools," she says. "I didn't even know the name of the school. It was so disorganized."

For the first two weeks of the school year, she had no students, Soleau says.

"I'd ask my supervisor, 'Where are all the students?" Soleau recalls. "She'd say, 'We don't know.'"

But only after Soleau received her classes of students did the real problems begin.

"These kids needed some kind of structure," she says. "They wouldn't even do the problems with me. I'd open up a quiz and do a quiz with them. 'C'mon, you guys, let's do it together.'"

Soleau says she'd write out the math problems, but "they wouldn't even do it. Some of those kids all had zeroes because they wouldn't even do one thing."

An in-class facilitator was assigned to Soleau's classroom, but she wasn't much help.

"She said they wouldn't listen to her, so she gave up."

Asked if the model Stride is deploying in Hazelwood has ever worked elsewhere, Senior Vice President Mike Kraft responded, "Yes, this model has been deployed at various districts. Note however, we do not share specific customer information."

Stride — and the company it was formerly known as, K12 Inc. — has been making headlines for the past six years, but too often for the wrong reasons. It's left a well-documented trail of angry parents, bitter lawsuits and hefty legal bills, controversies that Hazelwood School District Board of Education members apparently were never told about when they voted to hire the company back in early August, according to both meeting minutes and people with knowledge of board discussions.

In September 2020, technical glitches and cyberattacks plagued a $15 million, no-bid deal that K12 had shortly before agreed to with the Miami-Dade County Public School District in Florida, the nation's fourth-largest school district with 270,000 students.

The Miami-Dade deal ended abruptly when the district school board voted to sever ties with K12 only two weeks after the new school year began — in large part because the K12 platform became an easy target for a series of cyberattacks, including one launched by a 16-year-old Miami-Dade student.

Two months after the Miami-Dade County debacle, K12 Inc.changed its name to Stride.

The year before, in 2019, Georgia Cyber Academy — the Peach State's largest charter school — fired K12 after it was rocked by a legal battle with the corporation that used to operate it. In an unusually bitter public divorce between the online school and K12, accusations of questionable business practices flew on social media and in court documents, while state education officials decried the school's unacceptably low student test scores.

The public criticism grew especially harsh when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the school paid K12 $54 million — more than half the school's allotment of federal and state dollars — in fiscal year 2019 alone.

And in 2016, K12 Inc., which at the time operated taxpayer-funded online charter schools throughout California, reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state over claims it manipulated attendance records and overstated the academic progress of students, according to the Associated Press.

K12 executives at the time admitted no wrongdoing.

Now known as Stride, the company says the $168 million number is wrong, and that it only agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle an investigation by the California Department of Justice that alleged misreporting of attendance at California Virtual Academy schools, according to Stride spokesman Ken Schwartz.

"Stride K12 agreed to pay $6 million to defray the cost to taxpayers for the Attorney General's expenses related to its investigation of Stride K12 as part of an industry-wide probe of for-profit virtual schools," Schwartz writes. "The remaining $160 million difference between these two figures is associated with 'balanced budget' credits the Attorney General mischaracterized as debt relief."

The AP reported K12 agreed to expunge about $160 million in credits it had issued to the California Virtual Academies since 2005 that had helped the schools cover the cost of the contracts they hold with the company.

No record exists to show the Hazelwood Board of Education knew of, let alone discussed, Stride's problematic past. Minutes of Hazelwood school board meetings before the August 2 vote to hire Stride show no debate or discussion about the Stride contract.

Betsy Rachel, the board president, confirms the board was not informed about Stride's past problems. "I think you can say I don't recall it," Rachel says.

Nettie Collins-Hart, the Hazelwood school superintendent, declined multiple requests for an interview.

Schwartz, the Stride spokesman, declined to state if Stride informed the school board of past problems.

But in emailed responses to the RFT's questions, Schwartz writes that Stride/K12's history of controversies in other states "is a matter of public record and available for all partners we engage. The team also provides additional details on any aspect of Stride K12's operation as required."

Indeed, Stride wasn't hiding its past. It provided three references as part of its bid for the Hazelwood work. One was Atlanta; the second, incredibly, was Miami-Dade, where its contract had been terminated just two weeks into the 2020 school year.

The third was the Grandview R-II school district in Missouri, which supervises the Missouri Virtual Academy referenced by Elston.

Yet as the RFT previously reported, the work has not come without controversy. Stride's contract with Grandview was inked after the district superintendent retired and then joined the company as a consultant. The cash-strapped district used Stride as the basis of a profit-making model that elicited students around the state to sign up for online classes. And as the RFT's Eric Berger reported, experts concluded the Stride-run online academy showed "disastrous" results, with only 56 percent of pupils passing their courses in the 2019-2020 school year.

Rachel declined to answer questions about whether the Hazelwood administration should've informed the board of Stride's past problems or whether it would have made a difference in the board's vote in August.

"I'm not at liberty to give a comment on that," Rachel says.

The district's other six board members did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

click to enlarge Emails show that a Stride teacher at Hazelwood North Middle School struggled to maintain discipline in the classroom and quit after a month.
Emails show that a Stride teacher at Hazelwood North Middle School struggled to maintain discipline in the classroom and quit after a month.

The story of how Stride, despite its checkered history, ended up providing virtual teaching services at an average cost of more than $160,000 per classroom offers useful lessons for all Missouri school districts.

After all, practically every school district in the state is experiencing problems recruiting and keeping teachers — a trend that some experts believe will grow worse in the years ahead as fewer young people enter the teaching profession and more mid-career professionals quit or retire.

Many education professionals use the word "crisis" to describe Missouri's situation, and it's hard to argue with that description. More than one-fourth of Missouri school districts, the majority in rural areas, are on a four-day school week because of the teacher shortage.

The latest to join that list is the Independence School District, which voted in December to start a four-day school week beginning in the 2023-2024 school year. The 14,000-student district took this step as a way to recruit and retain staff amid an ongoing shortage of teachers.

The problem is nationwide and getting worse.

In July, the American Federation of Teachers, one of America's largest teacher unions, released a report that showed widespread and growing dissatisfaction among members with their profession.

A survey of AFT members shows a 34-point rise in job dissatisfaction since the start of the pandemic, from 45 to 79 percent. And since the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, "educators increasingly fear the scourge of gun violence in their schools, with nearly half of all members concerned about a mass shooting."

Titled "Under Siege: The Outlook of AFT Members," the report finds "workload, compensation, conditions, disruptions and support as variables changing educators' work lives for the worse. Nearly 9 out of 10 respondents say schools have become too politicized, following a year of political attacks on teachers waged by politicians stoking culture wars and banning books for personal gain."

What's more, 40 percent of AFT members across all divisions said "they may leave the job in the next two years, and three-quarters of teachers say they would not recommend their profession to others."

Hazelwood isn't immune to those trends, and people familiar with the district suggest other, more unique reasons for its teacher shortage as well. Some stakeholders describe a school district run in a top-down, authoritarian style, as well as a district where building principals move around often, creating environments where teachers, especially newer ones, feel intimidated by supervisors and believe they have little control over their careers and classrooms.

Connie Steinmetz, president of the Hazelwood National Education Association chapter, blamed Hazelwood's teacher shortage on the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The pandemic wore people out," she says. "They had to turn on a dime to teach in a completely different way. ... Teaching is tough anyway, right? But that pandemic year was pretty tough on people."

Elston, the district spokesperson, placed most of the blame on "the nationwide shortage" that "has exacerbated the HSD teacher shortage. Based on our teacher resignation/retirement data, the majority of HSD teachers who resign report positive feelings toward the district."

Meanwhile, the school district continues to explore a range of options to recruit and retain teachers. It plans to spend more than $270,000 on a program to mentor young high school teachers. The district has also taken steps to set up a partnership with a teachers college in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, district documents show.

But those recruitment efforts could be undercut by another crisis facing the district that is consuming district resources and administrator and school board attention: the discovery of radioactive waste on the grounds of Jana Elementary School, which the school district ordered closed in October.

For six years, school board members and administrators knew that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspected that radioactive waste dating back from the earliest days of the Manhattan Project had emanated from nearby Coldwater Creek and contaminated Jana's soil.

But school officials sat on this information and deflected efforts by members of the public to find out the truth.

Finally, a Missouri Coalition for the Environment staff member filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request that, over the summer, revealed the Army Corps' suspicions about Jana.

That led a private company working for law firms representing plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit to conduct a series of tests that revealed what they believed to be dangerous levels of radioactive particles in the soil surrounding Jana and inside the building. In mid-October the school district ordered Jana closed with its nearly 400 students bussed to five nearby grade schools.

Meanwhile, the school board has requested that the Army Corps test Hazelwood school buildings and properties — or nearly 30 sites. The Army Corps has not yet responded to this request.

click to enlarge Jana Elementary and Coldwater Creek
In addition to the teacher shortage, Hazelwood is also dealing with a radioactive contamination issue at Jana Elementary that could be district wide. The school's proximity to Coldwater Creek is the suspected source of radioactive contamination that one company found on the property.

How is Hazelwood's arrangement with Stride working out?

Interviews with district stakeholders indicate one of the biggest problems so far has been keeping the attention of students in virtual classrooms and maintaining classroom discipline.

On September 13, Stride virtual teacher Kimberly Caise sent an email to her in-class facilitator about efforts to incentivize good conduct among the students in the North Middle School sixth-grade math class that Caise taught at the time, according to a cache of documents the RFT obtained under the Missouri Sunshine Act.

A cardboard "treasure chest" full of mechanical pencils and ball-point pens had just arrived from Amazon. Students could earn tickets for these prizes by sitting and working quietly, having their headsets on, answering questions and logging in on time, according to the email Caise wrote from her home in San Antonio, Texas.

"Any time they do anything remotely positive or follow directions, give them a ticket," Caise wrote. "Once we get command of the classroom, things will be better for all of us. It takes us working together to show the students we mean business."

Caise urged her in-class partner to make sure students focus during class.

"If I am addressing a student for not paying attention please walk up behind them and let them know you are there and you are watching them," Caise wrote. "If we double team them I think a lot of the nonsense will stop. I will continue to email and call parents, but I don't want to inundate the parents as they will quit supporting me and see me as picking on their student or that the problem is mine because I can't control the class from Texas."

Elston, the district spokesperson, acknowledges discipline was initially an issue with "a few of our classrooms," but that concern eased after "we met with administrative staff, provided quality professional development focused on classroom management, student engagement, contacting parents, making lessons more engaging for students, made a few staffing changes, and conducted meetings with Stride staff to ensure that issues were addressed."

She adds: "As with implementation of any new program, changes and improvements have been made as we have identified those areas. A preliminary report which highlighted strengths, as well as challenges and needs, was provided to the Board of Education after the first nine weeks of implementation. Overall, student feedback was positive."

Caise left Stride's employment in October. She did not return calls seeking comment.

Another teacher who left is Soleau, the middle school math teacher in Huntington Beach, California. In her case, it wasn't by choice.

Her termination stems from a chaotic situation on September 16. After an intruder drill took place at Southwest Middle School, Chanti Harris-Walker, an in-class facilitator, called Soleau.

"I was in the middle of my explaining to Ms. Soleau what just happened and why," Harris-Walker later wrote in an email to the school's assistant principal. "That's when a student yelled out they wanted to fight another student in class. I quickly de-escalated the situation by separating the two and talking to the class as a whole letting them know this behavior is unacceptable and it has nothing to do with helping them get to the 8th grade."

That's when Harris-Walker heard a male voice on the other end of the phone ask, "What happened?" Harris-Walker could hear Soleau explaining to him about the intruder drill.

"He follows up with 'But she black!' And she replied wit [sic] 'I know right that's crazy, there [sic] are all black!!'" Harris-Walker wrote. "He then asked her 'are you muted?' She replied with, 'No they can't hear me.' Then I said YES I can hear you and she quickly hung up the phone."

The incident touched off an investigation within both the Hazelwood School District and Stride. It led to an email three days later from Laura Spezio, Stride's national account manager, to Hazelwood's assistant superintendent for instruction.

"Please know Stride shares the concern in the issue you have sent," Spezio wrote. "We have removed Sheila Soleau from the class and have a substitute in her place until further notice. Stride's leadership team has begun their investigation."

Later that day, a senior Stride human resources executive wrote in an email to Hazelwood administrators that Soleau "has been permanently removed from the classroom. As you may already know, I will not be able to share any further actions or outcomes as it is a personnel matter and confidential."

For her part, Soleau says she got a raw deal.

The male voice belonged to her son, a high school student, who was fetching her cellphone when Soleau's computer screen filled with images and sounds of kids in the classroom screaming.

"He goes, 'Wow. Are they all Black?'" Soleau says. "That's all he says. And then I said, 'Yes.' Then the facilitator says, 'I can hear you.' So she goes and tells the school she was uncomfortable with me teaching the class because I was racist, and I had made racist remarks."

The next day, Stride told her she was under investigation.

"I said, 'This is ridiculous. I taught all kinds of kids before this. And this wasn't coming from me, it was coming from my son. And they said, 'Yes, but your son shouldn't have been in your private classroom.' 'Well, he was bringing me my phone. And anyway he didn't really say anything that bad.' I said, 'This is wrong. I'm a really good math teacher.'"

Soleau decided to move on, but the incident still rankles her, she says.

"Because I had invested so much in those kids, and I was trying to help them," she says. "I wanted to make them better at math. I wanted them to learn."

Keith Bausman, the district assistant superintendent for human resources, wrote a memo addressed to Hazelwood Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart dated July 11, 2022. The memo was shared with the board at its August 2 meeting prior to voting on the Stride contract.

In the memo, Bausman blamed the district's teaching vacancies on "additional resignations and retirements ... and other factors related to the 'big quit' or 'great resignation,'" resulting in a "need to secure additional modes of instruction beyond that of the recruitment capacity of the Hazelwood School District."

Bausman recommended Stride to Collins-Hart, and ultimately the school board.

But Bausman's July 11 memo to Collins-Hart and the school board elides certain key details about Hazelwood's massive investment in virtual teaching entailed by Stride's hiring.

For instance, there are no details about the ultimate cost of the deal, or where the money for this $8.2 million unbudgeted expense would come from.

Nor does the memo offer details about the two competing bids from Edgenuity/Imagine Learning of Scottsdale, Arizona, or Proximity Learning of Austin, Texas.

Another relevant, if missing, detail from Bausman's memo: any mention of Stride's performance record.

Gary Miron, of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, has spent years studying online providers of virtual teaching.

Miron's assessment of Stride, formerly known as K12 Inc., is harsh.

"In 2019/20, which is our most recent year of results, we found that 20 percent of K12 Inc. blended learning schools and 26 percent of K12 Inc. full-time virtual schools had 'Acceptable' school performance ratings assigned by the state education agency," Miron writes in an email to the RFT.

Miron adds, "You will see that the K12 Inc. results are disastrous and do not change much from year to year."

Schwartz, the Stride spokesman, vehemently disputes Miron's analysis.

"Stride K12 supports more than 20 districts across Missouri to provide their students and school communities with flexible options," Schwartz writes. "Thousands of Missouri students have benefited from the Stride partnership, and over 200 districts have worked with Stride in the past year alone."

Schwartz writes that his company strongly disagrees with Miron's conclusions.

"What he doesn't consider is that a high percentage of students who transfer to online schools arrive behind grade level or credit deficient," Schwartz writes. "These analyses also don't account for the fact that Stride K12-powered students attend these schools because their current school isn't serving their needs appropriately. These schools are often the only choice for a family looking for an option in rural America. Students at these schools are more likely to come from economically disadvantaged homes and from single-parent homes than the national average."

Schwartz declines to identify the other school districts in Missouri and nationwide that work with Stride.

"It's our business policy to not disclose customers we serve, in any of our lines of business, in any state in which we work," Schwartz writes.

Miron is a professor of educational leadership, research and technology at Western Michigan University. In 2019, he co-authored a report on the fast-growing influence of education management organizations, or EMOs, on America's education system for the National Education Policy Center.

Miron's research found that EMOs like Stride fell short on traditional school performance metrics like student-teacher ratios and graduation rates. His report found that students in virtual schools had a graduation rate of 50.1 percent, while those in blended schools graduated at 61.5 percent rate — both well below the national average for in-person schools of 84 percent. The student-teacher ratio of EMOs was nearly three times higher than the national average, according to the report.

"The reason we're seen as critics is because the findings are absolutely terrible, and the reason for that is the model that's being used doesn't make sense," Miron in 2021 told Protocol, an online publication that covers the tech industry. "It's for maximizing profit, not for serving children, not for representing taxpayer interest."

Miron pointed to high student-teacher ratios as a major weakness for Stride and other for-profit EMOs. He argues that technology's ability to bring more people into a virtual classroom ultimately limits the critical one-on-one time teachers can spend with students, resulting in higher dropout rates.

"They don't have communication with students, they have algorithms that generate emails when a child hasn't been active for a week or two," Miron told Protocol. "They don't see the children, they don't hear the children, and the children exit in masses."

Elston, the school district spokesperson, declined to address Miron's criticism.

"This is our first year of using this particular branch of Stride services," she writes. "Our evaluations are ongoing, and we are monitoring implementation."

One more thing the Hazelwood school board apparently did not consider: how such a major reconfiguration of the school district into a hub of virtual learning could affect students in a mostly minority school district.

Tamar Brown, the education advocacy director for A Red Circle, a group dedicated to addressing racial disparities in north St. Louis County, says Hazelwood doubling down on remote learning raises concerns because of already existing racial disparities in education.

"And a virtual environment only widens that gap," Brown says. "It puts our students at a disadvantage."

Brown says she's not surprised to hear Hazelwood is having a hard time recruiting and retaining classroom teachers.

"Our teachers are under attack. I do believe that," she says. "They're tired, they're scared, they're frustrated."

Brown adds: "I've heard teachers say they're afraid to go to the classroom. They don't know what's going to happen. They don't know if they're going to be supported by their administration. So why go to work afraid every single day?"

None of these concerns were evident in a July 6 email chain obtained by the RFT in which top Hazelwood administrators considered the merits of the three companies that had responded to Hazelwood's request for proposal: Stride; Edgenuity of Scottsdale, Arizona; and Proximity Learning, of Austin, Texas.

Christopher Norman, Hazelwood's chief financial officer, wrote: "I have not broken everything down or reviewed full submissions, but on a per-teacher basis, Proximity is much lower cost than Stride."

"Edgenuity is certainly lower than that but as I understand it they provide the curriculum, not sure that is the case with Proximity," Norman wrote.

Eric Arbetter, the assistant superintendent for instruction, responded with his preference for Stride.

"Am I reading Proximity correctly that for middle school they can only offer courses for Math, Science, Art, and Social Studies (pages 48-49)? If so, that eliminates Proximity," Arbetter wrote.

Rhonda Key, the assistant superintendent for high school instruction, wrote that she is "fine with Proximity or Stride Learning. I do not support Edgenuity. We use Edgenuity as a credit recovery program for high schools. The students may treat their courses as credit recovery courses not required courses toward graduation or GPA's."

Key wrote that she leaned more toward Stride because "they have worked with Missouri schools and know Missouri Academic Expectations. ... Secondly, Stride has representatives near the St. Louis area for assistance and support."

Bausman added the cost of the Stride contract — $5.75 million — to the expected cost of hiring the Kelly Services personnel — another $2,524,000. Then he subtracted from the resulting total of $8.2 million the cost of hiring 50 in-person teachers, $3,355,000.

The total extra cost to the district: $4,919,000.

"It is the recommendation of human resources that the BOE authorize administration to proceed with a vendor contract from STRIDE Learning," Bausman wrote. "We are having ongoing discussions with Stride to clearly identify costs and negotiate various items for the contract. The calculations that are based on 50 needed secondary teachers represent the highest estimated total."

The Stride contract was one of six items that the school board voted on en masse. It was titled "Supplemental Staffing Support Provider STRIDE."

The only time board members discussed the Stride contract was when board member Diane Livingston spoke just before the vote.

"We need more teachers," Livingston said. "We know that. So one avenue that we're going through is maybe have some virtual classes within the schools. The kids will be going to classes as normal. ... Because we're short on math and science teachers especially, [they] might do it virtually. But it will be virtually with another human being on the other end of the camera."

Livingston concluded her statement with a lament.

"It's not something that we want to do," she said. "But in this day and age, and I've talked to people in other states and areas and stuff like that, there are teacher shortages across the board. And we just have to make sure we have good, qualified teachers at all times. And if we can't do it here we have to think outside the box."

So far, the only public report the Hazelwood School District has made about Stride's performance was delivered October 4, during a public report to the Hazelwood Board of Education.

Arbetter, the district assistant superintendent for instruction, portrayed the Stride remote learning program as an upgrade to the type of remote learning students experienced during the pandemic.

"I think a key difference from where we were in the pandemic, when kids were learning virtually, versus our students in the middle schools and high schools and learning virtually now is all of our students are in person," Arbetter said. "So we have an adult in the classroom helping them with the learning along with the virtual teacher."

Schwartz, the Stride spokesman, sketched a similarly upbeat portrait in an email to the RFT.

click to enlarge J. Ward and Christopher Peterson, juniors at Hazelwood East, say there is no hands-on learning in their Stride-taught classes.
J. Ward and Christopher Peterson, juniors at Hazelwood East, say there is no hands-on learning in their Stride-taught classes.

Through the first semester of the 2022-2023 school year, "Hazelwood and Stride Learning Solutions have collaborated daily to build a hybrid model that is customized for Hazelwood's remote instruction program," Schwartz writes. "Teachers and facilitators have completed training together — a combination of district and Stride-designed sessions."

What's more, Schwartz writes, "Stride K12-powered students have become accustomed to the remote instruction environment, and we are seeing improvement in student engagement and competencies.

"We are using Hazelwood's assessments and assessment calendar to ensure that students remain on pace with their peers in other classrooms and track student grades throughout the quarter."

During his October 4 presentation, Arbetter called the selection of Stride "an absolutely creative solution. But it also was out of necessity because we don't have enough teachers."

Betsy Rachel, the school board president, made it clear she sympathized with the district's plight during the October 4 meeting.

"Because at the end of the day as a school district, we have responsibility and an obligation to provide highly qualified, certified teachers to every student in our district, right?" Rachel said. "And despite all of our best efforts to hire persons directly, we still had a lot of open positions. And that would have left students without that consistency. So I'm very thankful for this. I'm not going to pretend it's ideal, but I'm very thankful."

Walking home from school one day in early December, a pair of Hazelwood East juniors in the district's grand experiment took a philosophical view.

Christopher Peterson explained that his English class is taught by a teacher in Kansas. "It's worked out pretty good," Peterson said.

His friend J. Ward has virtual classes in algebra and chemistry.

Since his teacher is also in Kansas, there is no hands-on learning in the chemistry class, he says. "It's like a bunch of tests on how much information you can recollect," he said.

Peterson added he's not happy with the idea of taking more virtual classes for the next 18 months, until his scheduled graduation.

"But there's nothing I can do about it," he said. "I might as well just finish it and get it over with."

Mike Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]

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