As schools try to help students recover from a pandemic-related academic slide, a new report urges district leaders to use this time to rethink their usual strategies for helping students and filling vacancies.
Returning to old norms without addressing students’ new needs and those that the pandemic exacerbated could have long-term consequences, says the new report, from the University of Virginia’s Partnership for Leaders in Education.
The authors of the wide-ranging report interviewed more than 40 education leaders representing districts of different sizes across the country about how they’re adjusting to meet the needs of the moment. According to the report, districts that are more likely to have found success in helping students regain their footing after pandemic shutdowns are:
- Placing a more intentional focus on expanding students’ access to advanced courses and career pathways;
- Addressing stunted learning by redesigning summer school options or extending the school day or year, and prioritizing students’ mental health needs;
- Focusing on long-term strategies to recruit and retain teachers, including by creating local grow-your-own programs; and
- Reexamining how they are allocating district funds to schools to prioritize students with the most urgent needs.
The report highlights several new initiatives districts have undertaken since the onset of the pandemic that have already yielded promising results. In Cleveland, for example, the district secured full-ride tuition for students who were accepted into participating universities, and in Caddo Parish, La., the system is piloting a four-day-a-week, 10-hour-day high school model to be more flexible and acknowledge students’ obligations outside of classes.
Those initiatives are prime examples of districts taking concrete steps to break down barriers to attending college or pursuing work and careers, said William Robinson, executive director of the University of Virginia’s Partnership for Leaders in Education.
“It’s really important for us to counter the negative narratives happening across the education space right now and amplify the innovation and courageous actions happening, because districts that fully embrace change are better positioned to thrive,” Robinson said. “This moment calls for dynamic leadership, and we’re seeing already systems that are more responsive to their communities’ needs and more willing to disrupt how they’ve traditionally organized education are already outperforming pre-pandemic levels and providing us optimism about where we can go in tackling our most vexing challenges.”
Focus on academics and student well-being
The report’s authors suggest schools consider using extended learning time—either by adding days to the school year or time to each school day—to maximize students’ time in the classroom. That should be supplemented with quality, vetted curriculum that is relevant and representative of the students in the district.
And while there should be a focus on academics, schools can’t overlook the importance of supporting students’ mental health, Robinson said.
Teachers who are already stretched too thin and don’t have the proper training shouldn’t be asked to play therapist because “there’s nobody else around to do it,” Robinson said.
Instead, districts need to recognize that hiring therapists and counselors will have long-term, positive benefits for children, even if it means cutting costs somewhere else. And if hiring mental health staff isn’t possible, districts could look to Atlanta schools as an example. There, all students have access to telehealth services to complement on-site counseling.
Districts should also prioritize exposing students to potential career opportunities in middle school by creating new partnerships with local colleges and businesses that can provide hands-on learning and experiences, the report says.
Robinson said a more intentional and holistic approach to post-high school opportunities has been “overdue for decades” but the pandemic—which pushed many students into the workforce to support their families as businesses struggled—shone a light on the need.
Invest in recruitment efforts early and in retention efforts often
Some districts have begun finding success in addressing staffing challenges by embracing the long game. Instead of looking to other places to find and recruit teachers, they’ve begun investing in their own pipelines of potential candidates.
The district in Ector County, Texas, for example, created its own teacher preparation program, now with 36 candidates participating, and launched a “para-to-teacher” program through which the district supports its paraprofessionals’ pursuit of teacher certification and degrees.
Retaining teachers will take routine investments in the form of pay raises for hard-to-staff positions and offering employee referral bonuses, rather than last-ditch efforts in crisis moments, Robinson said.
Taking the unpopular, but sometimes necessary, step of closing schools amid enrollment declines and reducing the number of administrators could make more money available for recruitment and retention incentives, the report says.
Ector County leaders also rolled out a new funding formula aimed at reducing inequities among its 43 schools. Instead of basing a school’s funding on enrollment and staffing, it now uses a weighted formula that factors in the student body’s poverty rate and the number of students in special education or bilingual programs to target funds to the highest-need schools.
Additional Title I funds those schools receive are used to support specialized programs and services for students who need them.
Even though the Texas district has taken strides to address an ever-changing educational climate, there’s still room to grow.
While district and school leaders can’t make all of the necessary changes on their own, and it’s unfair to expect them to have all the answers, Robinson said, it is incumbent upon them to set an example for the rest of their employees.
“If you invest in a coalition of the willing who want to create new solutions, people are ready to act,” Robinson said. “Those who embrace ingenuity and do it with courage and invite others into it are going to see improvement, and those who do not risk continuing to fall behind.”