The third full school year since the start of the pandemic is well underway, and teachers are reporting that students are still academically behind from where they should be.
This school year could be make-or-break in terms of catching students up to grade level, experts say. The nation’s largest teachers’ union is among those looking for solutions.
The National Education Association hosted a three-day gathering in February for teams of educators who wanted to think creatively about how to boost student learning in their districts. The teams were comprised of educators, administrators, and community or parent partners. Each ultimately received a $10,000 grant from the union to put their plans into action following approval from district leadership.
The 10 district teams’ plans range from small-group tutoring to high-quality professional development to bolstering student engagement. Some of the plans don’t explicitly address academics at all, but rather focus on contributing factors like student hunger, attendance, and a sense of belonging.
The idea, NEA leaders said, is to think holistically about how to accelerate student learning and to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for districts.
“The pandemic exacerbated gaps that we as educators knew existed—our parents certainly did—and those gaps have been there forever,” said NEA Becky Pringle in a webinar about the program earlier this month. “So make no mistake: Our accelerated student learning program is not designed to make up for just two years. That’s impossible. We know that. But we are committed to learning the lessons of all that we have experienced.”
School districts in Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Virginia received the grants. Education Week spoke to educators in three of the districts about their plans.
A focus on improving attendance
The Alton school district in southern Illinois, close to the Missouri border, is starting with the basics: Are students even in class to learn?
Nearly half of the district’s 5,900-student body has been chronically absent following the pandemic, meaning they miss 10 percent or more of school days. Bobby Rickman, the president of the Alton Education Association who’s leading the project, said district has a diverse socioeconomic population, and students from all backgrounds are missing school.
The organization Attendance Works estimates the number of chronically absent students has as much as doubled nationwide since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can’t help the student learn if they’re not in front of the teacher or support professional who can help them catch up,” Rickman said.
During the pandemic, parents became accustomed to their children being able to do their work at home on their laptops, Rickman said. They don’t always understand attendance policies, he said, adding that educators needed to do a better job communicating and connecting with parents.
And students are struggling with mental health and social-emotional issues that sometimes keep them home more than ever, Rickman said.
In the coming weeks, the team plans to launch a campaign titled, “Be here to get there.” The message, Rickman said, is that being at school is the pathway to students’ future goals, be they college or career.
The team will promote the message in the local newspaper and through signs, and tap recent high school graduates to make social media videos about what they liked about their school community.
Then, each school will establish a committee that will solicit feedback from students, parents, teachers, and other community members about what can be done to improve attendance.
“If you leave one group out, you’re leaving ideas out,” Rickman said.
In the spring, schools will identify an engaging project to make students want to come to school. For example, one school might plant a garden and allow students to take home its fruit and vegetables.
But the key piece is that the project will be chosen and designed by the students, Rickman said: “We want to leave it for the students to make that decision so they can feel like they are taking ownership—'It’s not the school’s project, it’s our project.’”
The bulk of the $10,000 grant will go toward the projects’ startup costs. (Rickman said he hopes all schools will ultimately launch a student-led project, but that the district will probably move in stages, with the schools that have the strongest buy-in among staff going first.)
“You continue to try the same ideas and the same concepts over and over and expect to get different results,” Rickman said of efforts to reduce absenteeism. “I’m really excited about trying something different.”
Making sure students are fed
You can’t learn when you’re hungry. The team at the Dolton West 148 school district in a Chicago suburb is starting there.
The nearly 2,000-student school district already provides students breakfast, lunch, and—for those who are enrolled in the after-school program—dinner on weekdays, but many students are still going hungry on the weekends.
“A lot of parents are having a hard time now after the pandemic,” said Darlene McMillian, the safety facilitator at Park Elementary School and the president of the local teachers’ union who is leading this project. “They’re trying to make ends meet.”
To help bridge the gap, the district plans to start passing out bags of snacks—healthy and nonperishable items, like crackers and applesauce—that students can take home over the weekend.
McMillian said she believes feeding children is the first step to improving attendance and achievement.
“When a child is full and fed, their attention is more on what the teacher is trying to teach them,” she said. “If they were hungry on the weekend, and they have to wait [to eat] until they come back, their minds are not going to be focused on what they’re learning.”
The district will use the NEA grant to start up the project, but district officials are also pursuing community partnerships to sustain the initiative long after the initial $10,000 runs out.
“It’s one way that we can try to give back to our community to help out because we want to be considered more than just the school—we want to be a safe haven for our students,” McMillian said. “We need to realize that if we want students to succeed, we have to start with basic needs for their bodies.”
Accelerating learning through small-group tutoring
The Montgomery County school system in the mountains of southwestern Virginia wanted to tackle the learning gaps between students of color and economically disadvantaged students and their white, more affluent peers.
“Even though there were issues after the pandemic, some of those issues have always been there,” said Matthew Fentress, a 5th grade teacher at Kipps Elementary and the president of the New River UniServ who is leading this project. (UniServ is the NEA’s field staff program, which helps support local affiliates.) “Often, us as teachers get pinned down by trying to cover every standard of learning, and so we’re often forced to move along without sometimes taking kids to a level of mastery.”
The 9,680-student school district has committed to accelerated learning, which means teachers continue to give all students grade-level work and then build in supports to help students who have gaps in their knowledge or skills.
Fentress and the other five people on the team (including his wife, Crystal, who teaches preschool in the district) are working to bring in volunteers who can work with small groups of students three times a week. The team is starting small and initially focusing on 1st and 2nd grade students at the Christiansburg Primary School.
The goal is for local college students—including those supported by the Access to Community College Education program, which gives financial aid in exchange for community service hours—to volunteer as tutors. (Educators in the district would train the volunteers.)
This could have a secondary benefit, Fentress said: The college students might be inspired to pursue teaching, which could help address the local teacher shortage down the road.
The district is still looking for those volunteers but hopes to officially start the program this school year. Fentress said the $10,000 grant might be used to provide stipends for the volunteers, as well as to procure materials for tutoring.
The goal, he said, is “helping kids get to where they need to be, instead of where they’re at.”