South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Mehlville considers cutting At Home program

At Home program currently operates on a deficit budget

The Mehlville School District is considering cutting its At Home virtual school program.

The At Home program is a virtual K-8 school, with 98 students and 20 full-time and part-time staff combined. It was started in 2020 as an alternative option to in-person learning during the pandemic. In 2022, it was expanded to be offered to students from other districts as a full-time virtual education option through the Missouri Course Access Program, or MOCAP.

Over the summer, district staff began a financial review of the program to determine its long-term viability. It operates at a deficit, bringing in revenues of $550,000 while expensing $1.6 million. To break even, the program would need a total enrollment of 240-250 students with no additional staff.

Currently, 44%  of students in the program are not in the district or tax base. According to data from the district, 54 students in the program are also residents of the school district, while 43 students are from outside the district. Of those outside students, most are still in the St. Louis metro region, however, there are some students from as far away as Jefferson City, Grain Valley and Moberly.   

At a special Board of Education meeting on Dec. 7, several options were reviewed for the program’s future, including maintaining the status quo, banding grade levels or closing the program entirely, with the staff’s recommendation being closing the program.

“I’m just going to read this because if I try to say it without I will not do it justice. We’ve reviewed data to make this recommendation and the recommendation wasn’t easy, but what cannot be overlooked and what makes this decision hard is the time, effort, love and passion put into their work by the teachers and students of the At Home program,” Superintendent Jeff Haug said while reading a PowerPoint presentation. 

“I hope the families and I hope the teachers know that we took all this into consideration regardless of the recommendation. And no, we cannot thank our staff and students enough for their dedication for the At Home program,” Haug added. “It wasn’t easy for the recommendation to be made given the people part of school.”

Aside from the financial ramifications, other reasons behind the recommendation are that At Home class sizes are not in line with district ratios. There are six and a half students for every core teacher in an elementary At Home class, while the ratio for a district elementary class is 20.5 for every core teacher.

At Home middle school staff do not have a full schedule and do work as interventionists supporting other grade levels.

“We are evaluating (the program) on enrollment, staffing and budget. We are not in any shape or form evaluating it on our staff,” Haug said. “The passion that they show and the work ethic that they show is there. That is not a question. It’s the financial part we’re talking about.”

According to data from the district, MAP data is below the state average for fourth through eighth-grade English language arts, third through eighth-grade math, and fifth and eighth-grade science.

If the district were to close the program, At Home teachers would be involuntarily transferred to other vacant positions in the district based on seniority, certification and subject matter/grade level experience, said Mehlville Director of Human Resources Shannon Pike.

If there are not enough vacant positions for reassignment for At Home probationary teachers, contracts would be recommended for non-renewal before April 15, 2024, specifically because “reorganization of the district.”

“Placing tenured teachers before placing any nontenured teachers occurs first,” said Pike. “If though we get into a situation where we don’t have the amount of vacancies to place probationary teachers and tenured teachers for At Home … additional probationary teachers may be recommended to the Board of Education for non-renewal prior to April 15, 2024.”

Pike said this is due to state statute that requires tenured teachers must be placed in a classroom before a probationary teacher can remain in that classroom, although she stressed that this was an unlikely scenario to occur.

During board discussion, Haug said that regardless of any board decision, the At Home program would continue through the end of the school year.

Director Jeff Wolman pointed out that it could be difficult for families to find an equivalent to the program since it is the only “synchronous” one in the state, in that it follows the pattern of a typical school day rather than having students go through provided coursework at their own pace.

“Since obviously a good percentage of our students are outside the area we must be having some kind of marketing, even if it’s word of mouth primarily. Is there any reason you know why historically we weren’t marketing this the way theoretically it could have been to get more people in the seats,” Wolman questioned, which was met with applause from meeting attendees. “Obviously it was formed back in the day in a response to COVID … but there’s some kind of communication happening among other students and others and the like.”

Several members of the public came to speak in favor of the program, including parents and educators.

“One of the primary strengths of the At Home program is its ability to transcend geographical boundaries. By keeping our program open, we are providing access to education to students who may face challenges attending a traditional school,” At Home ELA teacher Kari LeBrun said during public comment. “It levels the playing field. It ensures that every student regardless of their location has the opportunity to receive a quality education. Each student in the At Home program is not just a face in the crowd.”

The board will make a decision on the At Home program at its meeting Thursday. Meetings with staff would begin the next day. Recommendations of non-renewals for probationary teachers would be in March and April of 2024.