Usually at this time of year, we would be writing about ways to prevent “summer slide” — the academic lapses typical of many students during an extended break from school.
Oh, for the days.
This summer, the prospect of longer-term, pandemic-related learning gaps is the higher priority. In February, Governor Doug Ducey directed the State Board of Education to study student assessment data to identify areas of significant learning loss that occurred during the pandemic. Research will focus on comparing AZMerit data from prior years to the AZM2 assessments completed just last month.
In late March, soon after Ducey ordered public schools to return to in-person learning, we sent a questionnaire to Raising Arizona Kids readers asking, “How concerned are you about COVID-related learning gaps in your child’s education?” Nearly 68 percent indicated they were either “extremely concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about learning losses their children might have suffered during the pandemic.
We reached out to several local districts to find out how their students had weathered a difficult year, and what they were doing to make sure students who had struggled through it weren’t left behind.
What did we find? Lots of optimism from education veterans who understand that good teachers who are well supported know how to help kids catch up. The districts we consulted are planning expanded summer school programs, often free of charge, and continued building upon hard-earned lessons of the past year about how children learn best under challenging conditions.
The difficulty of assessment
It’s hard to register the impact of a year of online learning, says R. Michael Lee, EdD, assistant superintendent for special programs and professional learning at Buckeye Elementary School District, which remained fully virtual — except for a brief “hybrid” spell — until March 15 of this year.
“The challenging thing has been getting good data in terms of learning loss or lack of learning loss. Virtual assessment raises questions about whether you’re getting real and reliable data.”
Another challenge is determining how engaged students have been with learning. “Teachers everywhere will tell you what we might get from one kid is different from another kid. The difference is that cognitive-engagement factor, whether the child was able to stay attentive. In [a regular] classroom, you can see better whether kids are ‘getting it’.”
Standardized testing like AzM2 [formerly the AzMERIT], administered in April to all public school students in grades 3-8 and 10, may offer insights into groups of students, but it will fall to teachers to untangle and support individual students’ losses and needs.
“The governor has tasked the state to study learning loss, but the state measure isn’t going to tell us a lot,” Lee says. “Comparisons [to prior years] are important. But they won’t [account for] the difference in socioeconomic status.”
Some families were able to make “a heavy investment in private tutoring, versus families just trying to make it [despite] lost jobs or multiple jobs. Nothing plays out evenly over demographic groups,” he says.
That puts the burden on teachers, who are doing lots of “taking the temperature of where kids are in their learning,” Lee says. “The depth and breadth of content teachers must understand in their own grade-level standards already is daunting. We’re working with teachers on having that comfort level with standards both above and below their grade level. In today’s society, these are skill sets that master teachers have had to develop already, but this [pandemic year] really put that on steroids.”
How long will it take to get kids back on track? “As educators, we have to be prepared for the maximum possible need,” Lee says. “We know this will be a multi-year effort. One thing we know doesn’t work is cram and catch up. Kids don’t learn that way. Instead, we need to focus on essential skills in engaging ways.”
Buckeye immediately began providing group tutoring and instruction after school, starting with prioritizing K-3 literacy and math for grades 4-8. Summer school will follow the same model. “The arts are so important, but experts are telling us you have to give most attention to reading and mathematics because of this fluke in time.”
“Assessments matter,” Lee says, “and we believe everyone should be held accountable. But the pandemic laid bare one component that really matters: when society was in a panic, what did we do and what mattered?”
From the top down, Buckeye school administrators focus on being a source of support for the community: providing free and reduced lunches delivered by bus, distributing thousands of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, teaching families how to interface with cloud-based services, providing translation services and connecting families to local support networks.
“Schools get letter grades [for academic performance], but some of the things the community would tell you really matter aren’t included in that at all,” he says. “Our superintendent talks a lot about ‘extending grace.’ This is not the time for judgment. We need to say ‘here’s where we are, here’s where we need to go.’ ”
Where to focus
The initial transition to online learning went fairly smoothly for the Osborn School District in Phoenix, says Abby Potter-Davis, Osborn’s chief officer for learning and equity. “We were well positioned to dive right in,” she adds. “We had already rolled out one-to-one technology along with some good educational online tools and training for teachers.”
Still there is concern, especially for Osborn’s youngest students. “We want to be able to emphasize and fill foundational skills gaps for those younger kids, those early readers.” Writing skills also need shoring up, Potter-Davis says. “Writing on the computer is not the same as holding a pencil. With little ones, you have to focus on mechanics.”
Student math skills also will be monitored closely. “If you look at national data reviews, math is rising to the top in terms of content area of most concern,” Potter-Davis says. “Concepts in math build on each other. If you miss one (step), it’s hard to build on the next. We will be looking at getting some real precise data to figure out what [Osborn students] know and don’t know, and how to address that.”
Osborn plans to provide an “expanded, robust program” this summer at five campuses. “We won’t be able to serve all of our students, but we’ll serve as many as we possibly can. We’ll be able to keep all of our current K-2 students at their home campuses for summer school. Grades 4-6 will be together on one [elementary] campus, and grades 7-8 will be on a middle school campus.”
An emphasis on classroom time
Dysart Unified School District was one of only a few Valley school districts that reopened last August. The district managed to stay open throughout the school year, with few incidents of COVID-19 infection.
Dr. Steve Poling, assistant superintendent for education services, has four kids attending district schools, so he has a vested interest in the district’s prevention measures. “The COVID protocols we have in place are very strong,” he says, and include immediate quarantining of any students or staff who have had contact with a COVID-positive individual.
About 80 percent of families sent their kids to school last fall, and that percentage has held strong throughout the spring semester. Still, Poling says, in-person learning under pandemic conditions was stressful for students.
“We’ve really tried to make school as normal as possible, because kids need it. Some things they’ve not been able to experience, but we’re really proud of the hard work of families and staff in following protocols.” The district also has maintained an online learning option for families who preferred to keep their children at home.
Despite that, “we’ve seen learning losses across the board,” Poling says, though more so in the “building block, foundational years” of grades K-3. “Last spring  had a negative impact, and then we didn’t offer summer school like we usually do.”
Losses are most apparent in the remote-learning students, he says. “Those 20 percent on remote are struggling more than those in person. We realized we had to tackle this.”
Federal COVID-relief dollars will make it possible for Dysart to offer two free, three-week summer school sessions to all K-12 students, beginning in June. The summer program will be “all in-person,” Poling says. “We’re not using [anything] digital. It will be very targeted to what our students need. Some students have more learning loss than others. For some, it’s more about enrichment, so they keep growing, but we’re also spanning to students who are struggling or behind.”
With many parents torn between their kids’ conflicting needs for academic support and a much-needed break, what is his message to families? “Please send your student to summer school. We will have fun, but kids will learn a lot.”
Building on an existing vision
In some respects, the Tolleson Union High School District was ahead of the curve in addressing concerns about academic fallout from the pandemic. “We had already set a goal to offer summer school without tuition,” says Dr. Michele Wilson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “We had already moved to that model.”
In a normal summer, students looking to complete core classes they needed to graduate would take a month of summer school in June, at one centralized district campus. “Usually we had about 1,600 students who would take advantage of that opportunity,” she says.
When district leaders considered the potential impact of the pandemic last spring, they extended the summer program through July, allowing more than 2,100 students to participate — albeit virtually — at no expense to families.
This year, as Tolleson returned to in-person instruction March 22, plans were in place to further increase student access to summer learning.
“We know some of our students wanted to improve a grade,” Wilson says. “This community has been heavily impacted by the pandemic. Some of our students or their family members got sick. We have kids who are working to help take care of their families and didn’t receive the grades they wanted based on things they couldn’t control.”
Tolleson’s traditional summer school, Success Academy, will offer face-to-face, teacher-guided instruction in both core courses and electives June 1-30, on each of the district’s seven high school campuses. Students will earn one-half credit in each class they successfully complete and can take up to four classes. The district’s Blended Option Academy includes self-paced learning via Tolleson Virtual High School, which will be available to students in both June and July.
“We’re excited about expanding [summer school] to every single high school campus,” Wilson said. “We’re hoping to extend our numbers well past 2,100 students this year.”
Wilson credits district students, families and staff for adapting to a year when “not only academics needed support but the community has had basic needs as well, including food. I’ve been amazed at the resilience of the human spirit during this pandemic,” she says. “We’ve all leaned in together to make it work.”