Durango City Councilor Chris Bettin noticed something parents are grappling with across the country – an academic slide with his son, Dylan, who was struggling in several classes at Durango High School after moving to remote learning.
“I was trying to help him pick up the pieces, but I realized pretty quickly I was in over my head,” Bettin said.
Bettin took action, he found a tutor, Chris Hughes, who helped Dylan, and Bettin said his son’s grades rapidly improved.
Bettin’s experience led him to work with Hughes to support the Powerhouse Science Center’s Durango Learning Lab as it added tutoring services for high school students. The Learning Lab has been providing enrichment activities for K-8 students on Wednesdays and small group sessions offering tutoring for K-8 remote learners.
The issue identified by Bettin is something well-recognized by Durango School District 9-R, said Dylan Connell, 9-R’s executive director of curriculum assessment.
Once in-person learning resumed, teacher assessments and observations of academic slides among many students coming back from remote learning have been confirmed by tests used to gauge each student’s academic proficiency, Connell said.
Weeks ago, groups of teachers began working with principals and other school leaders to analyze the academic performance of all students with a priority of getting the best outcomes this semester from each of them, especially those who struggled during remote learning, Connell said.
“We want to diminish those gaps as soon as possible, before summer whenever we can,” he said. “We have a great sense of urgency about accelerating learning, so that COVID doesn’t have a lifelong impact on our students’ ability to read, write, communicate and problem-solve.”
Most troubling for 9-R, Connell said, is that academic slides are most pronounced among students who are receiving free and reduced lunch, and students of racial and ethnic minorities. Another problem demographic is based on geography – the district’s most rural students also tend to struggle, largely because they lack access to reliable broadband.
“Specifically, when you analyze the data for particular demographics,” he said, “we found consistently that English language learners, students with Individualized Education Plans, students of color and students who are economically disadvantaged are demonstrating proficiency below the district average in foundational literacy and numeracy assessments.”
Focusing on math skillsNeedham Elementary Principal Laurie Rossback said parents worked admirably with their kids while they were confined to learning at home. The problem she sees in the academic slide among many families stems from overburdened parents during the height of the pandemic.
“I think that gap comes when you have a family with both parents still working,” she said. “They’re juggling work, they have young children at home, they have to cook dinner. It becomes really difficult for them to on top of that manage online schooling. You’re trying to balance work and life and help your kindergartner manage her Zoom class.”
Needham is focusing on math for the remainder of the semester because it is the subject where the biggest slides have occurred.
“In terms of students’ progress toward proficiency, we saw it using i-Ready (an assessment test) as a snapshot benchmark of data, but our teachers also recognized it from formative assessments in the classroom and observing student work, there was a pretty significant impact,” Rossback said.
Needham’s instructional leadership team is analyzing the data and created a “math cohort” – a group of teachers that includes Rossback that meets regularly to work to improve math skills and seek strategies that can be used in classrooms the remainder of the year to help students.
“We want to implement strategies in classrooms throughout the building that will move the needle on math for the remainder of the year, really getting tight around what are the practices that will yield the highest outcomes that we can provide to all students with the time we have remaining before summer,” she said.
The curriculum and the teaching methods aren’t radically different from a typical year, Rossback said, but she said attention to each student’s skills and focusing time on helping each of them overcome obstacles is key to recover ground lost during remote learning.
“There’s always a challenge within a remote environment, but especially in mathematics, to see what kids are doing, and then provide that real-time support,” she said.
In kindergarten and first grade, there’s a particular focus on ensuring students understand numbers through 20 and understand the concepts of addition and subtraction.
“If students don’t have a solid understanding of numbers, one through 20, in particular, and further numbers one through 100, in grades one and two, it really impacts their long-term trajectory in mathematics,” she said.
‘Enrichment time’Durango High School Principal Jon Hoerl said much like elementary schools, DHS data also show students falling behind at a faster rate while they were in remote learning compared with a normal school year.
“We knew that we had to be responsive to that,” he said.
When in-person learning resumed, for four half-days a week, Hoerl said the school used the free half day to focus on “enrichment time.”
“What we found with the strictness of cohorts and moving to remote learning, we really lost all of our interventions that we typically would have done, like our reading labs, and our math supports, our students support classes,” he said. “So we’ve been able to weave some of those back into the schedule. And then also give that focus time in the afternoon to individual needs. And we found some great success with it.”
During the enrichment periods, students are working in small groups, sometimes one-on-one with teachers to help get caught up.
A big issue with remote learning is the tempting lure of distractions.
In-person learning, including DHS small-group enrichment periods, largely eliminate those distractions.
Hoerl said: “When you’re in a classroom and the teacher’s right there with you, it seems like it’s just easier to maintain a relationship. There’s going be accountability. When there’s a remote link, and it’s up to the student to log in and find time during their day, it just increases all kinds of variables that might harm the kind of accountability you have in a classroom.”
Sasha Creeden, education director at the Powerhouse Science Center, said she’s heard from several 9-R teachers of cases in which they’ve lost contact with students who were doing well with in-person learning when the switch was made to remote learning.
“There’s a handful of kids, engaged kids, they just stopped seeing them when they went remote,” Creeden said. “They didn’t have the skill set and the home support to be able to translate to a remote learning environment.”
As Bettin’s work with the Powerhouse Science Center’s Learning Lab shows, Durangoans have also rallied to provide innovative supports for K-12 students during the pandemic.
The cost for services at the Learning Lab is $50 a day or $30 a half day, but Jeff Susor, Powerhouse Science Center executive director, said scholarships are available for students, and a policy has been established during the pandemic that no student who needs help academically will be turned away because of an inability to pay.
“We guarantee that financial cost won’t be a barrier,” he said.