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Schools grapple with helping students bounce back from COVID compromised learning

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Delaware Public Media
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The consensus is that the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on schools left many students learning less than they would in a normal year.

How best to catch-up is a question schools and the state are grappling with as summer break looms next month. This week, contributor Larry Nagengast looks at some of the issues they face and approaches they'll take.

Having spent fewer hours than usual in their classrooms and many more adjusting to the vagaries of online instruction, it’s hardly surprising that Delaware students – like their peers across the nation – might not have learned as much as they had hoped in the year of COVID-19.

So, this summer and into the new school year, many students will have some catching up to do.

But it won’t be called “catching up.”

In Education Speak 2021, “learning loss” is out, replaced by “unfinished teaching and learning.” Also banished from the vocabulary is “remediation.” The new buzzword is “acceleration.”

“Call it what you want, it’s learning recovery,” says Dorrell Green, superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

In the Cape Henlopen School District, where most students have had in-person instruction for most of the year, a primary focus will be on those who haven’t been in a classroom since March 2020, says Amanda Archambault, supervisor of elementary education. “It’s important that we get our eyes on those kids,” she says.

The district, she says, “is working on a reengagement or accelerator mindset,” concentrating not what students might not have learned during the past year and pointing instead toward the future. The goal of summer programming, she says, “is to launch them into the next school year, like beginning the next school year early.”

“Introducing difficult concepts early” to students who have been struggling will help them “build knowledge and understanding” before the start of the regular school year, says Renee Jerns, director of secondary education in the Indian River School District.

"Call it what you want, it's learning recovery." - Red Clay School District superintendent Dorrell Green

As is typical in Delaware, the state Department of Education has laid the groundwork through what it calls the “Delaware Strategy to Accelerate Learning,” a roadmap that prioritizes key actions and offers supportive programming, while allowing districts and charter schools to work out the specifics of their own programs.

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Credit Red Clay Consolidated School District
Red Clay Consolidated School District superintendent Dorrell Green

For the most part, money will not be an issue. According to the Congressional Research Service, under the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March, Delaware will receive nearly $411 million through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), with 10 percent reserved for the Department of Education and the rest for distribution to districts and charter schools. The feds, unlike the state, are keeping “learning loss” in their vocabulary.

Under the federal guidelines, the Department of Education is expected to spend about $20 million of its nearly $41 million on programs to address learning loss, plus more than $4 million each on summer enrichment and after school programs. The legislation anticipates that districts and charter schools will spend at least 20 percent of their roughly $369 million in grant money on programming to combat learning loss.

The state is using some of its federal funding to purchase licenses for online literacy and math programs. All public school students entering first through sixth grades would have access to the literacy programs; those entering first through eighth grades would have access to the math programs. These online tools would be used to supplement instruction throughout the summer and the coming school year. Some districts are already using these programs for some of their students, says Monica Gant, associate secretary of the Department of Education’s academic support team, so the expanded access will enable districts to build on what they’re already doing rather than start something new.

Providing access to these programs to all students is especially significant because it means that everyone in the appropriate grade levels – not just those recommended for supplemental instruction – will have the opportunity to brush up on or build their skills in language arts and math but during summer and throughout the school year.

For struggling students, these programs offer “heightened support,” says Kalia Reynolds, executive director for teaching and learning in the Appoquinimink School District. “For those working at or above grade level, they’re able to keep moving ahead.”

The Department of Education is also providing online access to selected textbooks for students at all grade levels, as well as access to all e-books in the state’s public library collection without needing a library card.

Another piece of the department’s strategy is hiring about 325 tutors in reading and math to supplement district and charter school hires for the summer and the school year. Retired teachers and college education majors are among those being recruited for these positions, Gant says.

Districts and charter schools are taking similar – but not identical – approaches to developing their summer programs and supplemental efforts for the 2021-22 school year.

Officials contacted by Delaware Public Media say they are using assessments of individual student progress made this year to identify students who have the greatest need for supplemental instruction this summer. Generally, this includes students performing in the lowest 25 percent of those at the their grade level, those in danger of failing reading and math classes, and those with special education needs or physical disabilities who haven’t had access to a full range of school services due to Covid-19.

Districts and charters cannot require students to attend summer programs, but they are encouraging families to enroll students who would benefit from them.

"We can't make parents and students feel like they're being forced into summer programming, but we explain to them, 'these are the challenges if your child does not participate,'" says Charter School of New Castle's Rachel Valentin

“We invited about 300 students overall, and more than 150 families have decided to participate,” said Emily Edmonds-Eveland, director of curriculum and instruction for Las Americas Aspira Academy, a dual-language charter school that has 1,060 students enrolled this year.

Participants will attend classes from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday from July 13 through Aug. 12, Edmonds-Eveland said. Reading and math lessons, plus a session on social-emotional topics, will be on the schedule every day. For primary grade students who need extra support, one or two tutors from the Reading Assist Institute will provide one-on-one assistance.

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Credit Charter School of New Castle
Rachel Valentin, elementary school executive director at the Charter School of New Castle

Since students in her district – and in many others – have the use of laptop computers provided by their schools during the summer, they can access the online language arts and math support programs used by their districts from home throughout the summer, says Appoquinimink administrator Reynolds. “We’re also providing training for families” so parents can help their children access the software and monitor their work, she says.

Because participation in summer acceleration programs is optional, district and charter officials are already thinking about how to work with students who will need additional support during the school year.

“High dosage tutoring,” defined as more than three days a week, or at a rate of at least 50 hours over 36 weeks, will be available during the summer but may take on more importance come September. “We’re already thinking ahead about who would benefit from high-dosage tutoring,” Valentin says.

While Gant points out that education research has shown that high-dose tutoring can produce large learning gains for students who have fallen behind academically, school officials point out that scheduling the tutoring sessions can be a challenge during the school year.

“The last thing we would want to do is provide them with the tutoring and take them out of core instructional time,” says Green, the Red Clay superintendent.

“We’re exploring how to do it,” says Archambault, the Cape Henlopen supervisor. Likely options, she says, involve scheduling the tutoring sessions before or after regular school hours.

As they prepare for the summer and the added support programs for the school year, one of the concerns facing districts and charters is whether they will have enough qualified staff to carry the extra load.

Some, like Las Americas Aspira, say they have enough teachers on their staff interested in working during the summer to make their programs work. But Red Clay’s Green says teachers in his district “have had long days for a year and a half [and] a good number of them are looking for a well-deserved respite.”

For this reason, both for the summer and the school year, schools will rely more are partnerships with groups like the Reading Assist Institute, which worked with struggling readers in 12 elementary schools last year and expects to do more this year, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware, whose 43 sites last year served about 3,000 students daily in academic enhancement programs.

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Credit Reading Assist Institute
A Reading Assist Institute tutor works with a student before the COVID-19 pandemic

Reading Assist recruits about half its tutors, called “fellows” through the national Americorps service program and is now beefing up its team by interviewing recent college graduates and former teachers and principals, jokingly labeled “failed retirees” by executive director Caroline O’Neal. (Individuals interested in positions at Reading Assist may apply here.)

Although Reading Assist has been working primarily in New Castle County, with need expanding “we are looking to provide tutors statewide,” she says.

“We will provide support and tutoring,” helping students use the free software programs provided by the state, says Chris Basher, chief operating officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs. But, he adds, “there is a shortage in the labor pool.”

“The supply of high-dosage tutors is not that high,” Appoquinimink’s Reynolds says, “so we all have a staffing concern.”

The Department of Education is lining up nonprofits and businesses to work as subcontractors, providing tutors for districts and charters. While recruiting is underway now and schools are still assessing their needs, it is uncertain how well the pieces will fit together.

"The supply of high-dosage tutors is not that high. So we all have a staffing concern." - Appoquinimink School District's Kalia Reynolds

No matter what the logistics, officials are confident that the federal funds available should cover almost all the costs of the supplemental programming through next June.

Although the special funding runs for only one year, educators are not suggesting that a quick fix is on the horizon.

“We are responding to an experience no one has ever encountered before. By no means do we think that this is going to be an easy task,” says Laretha Odumosu, middle school executive director of the Charter School of New Castle.

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Credit Appoquinimink School District.
Kalia Reynolds, executive director for teaching and learning in the Appoquinimink School District.

“This isn’t something that will get fixed over the next six months, or the next school year,” says Green, the Red Clay superintendent. “We’re going to be dealing with this for years to come.”

With school buildings closing a year ago, then transitioning to remote and then hybrid instruction models, educators have yet to assess what they have managed to achieve. “We’ve been so focused on the next challenge that we haven’t looked back to see how far we have come. There is a lot of silver lining in those clouds,” Green says.

And he is hopeful that his district – and many others – will continue to build on those achievements, even if it takes several years. “The optimism I have,” he says, “is because I believe we have the right people to do the work.”

 

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