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Catching students up from pandemic’s ‘unfinished learning’

Districts zero in on academic recovery, emotional support

Multiple districts – In her eighth-grade math class at North Rockford Middle School, teacher Amanda Makarewicz helps her students master tricky concepts with a couple of reliable tools: hard data from the school’s learning management system, and walking around to look over students’ shoulders as they work.  

If she finds most of them are having trouble with, say, finding the hypotenuse of a right triangle, she’ll spend that day reviewing the concept. But if just a few are struggling, she can send them to Ram Time — a daily, 30-minute period for small-group review offered to all North Rockford students.  

Ram Time, and a similar program called WIN (What I Need) at East Rockford Middle School, were piloted last spring as a way to address the interruption of students’ learning brought on by the pandemic. The focused programs are among the ways local school districts are addressing “unfinished learning” – a term many educators have coined for the pandemic’s major disruptions to schooling. 

‘When you see gaps like we are seeing, it puts a lot of pressure on you to catch everyone up, and catch them up right now.’

 — Jason Lawson, Kentwood Public Schools 

Supported by state and federal COVID assistance funds, districts are also aiming to address the emotional fallout from more than two years of lockdowns, spotty at-home learning and personal losses inflicted by the deadly virus. Ram Time includes two 30-minute sessions each week that address students’ social-emotional needs, communication skills and career exploration.

Principal Lissa Weidenfeller says that addressing the inherent trauma caused by the pandemic plays a huge role in creating rebounds in student learning.

“Every single student has gone through a lot, something they will never forget for the rest of their lives,” Weidenfeller said. “That’s why we decided to emphasize social-emotional learning this year.”

Other Kent County schools are employing myriad methods of helping students recover from learning gaps — confirmed nationally by the recently released Nation’s Report Card, but long known to local educators from district and state test scores. 

Dropped Scores No Surprise  

Students from at least four Kent ISD districts took the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to a random sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide every two years. Average scores drastically declined in both grades — especially in math — and the gap between low-income and wealthier students widened, including in Michigan. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the results “appalling and unacceptable.” 

The NAEP scores were troubling but not surprising to local educators who had long seen them coming. 

“The results that we have gotten from NAEP, we pretty much knew it,” said Davie Store, Kent ISD director of Research and Continuous Improvement. “We knew the results were not going to be good.”

This is because local district benchmark assessments given three times a year, along with the state assessment called M-STEP, had already indicated to the districts what to expect, he said. 

‘All scholars deserve to learn at their grade level, and we’re meeting them where they are.’

— Jonathan Harper, GRPS Director of Curriculum

From the start of the pandemic, there was a line that was going down. Within the first few months, educators only saw it in math, Store said, but by the end of the 2020-21 school year reading was clearly plummeting as well. While educators saw some improvement in both areas last year, they’re still not back to pre-pandemic levels, he said. “So yes, we are turning the corner, but we are not yet there.” 

That’s especially true in the gaps between lower- and higher-achieving students, as well as between white students and Black and Latino students, Store added.

North Rockford Middle School math teacher Amanda Makarewicz uses real-time data to identify the learning needs of eighth-graders like Evan Monroe

Closing the Gaps 

Closing those gaps is a central aim of local districts, including Rockford, Kentwood and Grand Rapids where some students were included in the NAEP testing. 

Kentwood has seen some success in that effort. While its M-STEP scores last spring were down from pre-pandemic levels, certain subgroups like African American, Hispanic and low-income did better than Kent ISD and state averages in select grades and subjects.

That relative academic success had as much to do with what the district was doing prior to the pandemic as during it, with instruction staying consistent, said Jason Lawson, executive director of elementary education and instruction.  

“We had coaches really work hard once kids got sent home (in March 2020) creating packets that had a focused lesson, had productive group work and had independent learning, which is all part of our instructional model to keep that consistency.”

Educators plan to implement a pilot “high-dosage” tutoring program at Townline Elementary next semester to zero in on achievement gaps. Students will work closely with tutors in targeted areas of math and reading.

The district also plans to continue extensive summer school programs in every elementary and middle school, with credit recovery opportunities for high schoolers. Hundreds of high schoolers have completed courses over the past two summers, thanks to the opportunity.

‘The results that we have gotten from NAEP, we pretty much knew it. We knew the results were not going to be good.’

— Davie Store, Kent ISD director of Research and Continuous Improvement

Other gap-closing strategies include strengthening relationships with students to build their sense of belonging. Meanwhile, a newly hired leader of teacher professional development lends support to 90 new teachers. 

“Teachers and our administrators since the pandemic have been working extremely hard. When you see gaps like we are seeing, it puts a lot of pressure on you to catch everyone up, and catch them up right now,” Lawson said. “You see teachers working at a pace above where they need to be working because they want all kids to be successful.”

Drilling Deep Into Data 

Grand Rapids Public Schools are witnessing trends similar to the state and national levels regarding math and English in its M-STEP scores: generally improved over last year but down from pre-pandemic levels. Comparing GRPS’ scores to other urban districts in the state, Director of Curriculum Jonathan Harper does not see their students’ data as “outstanding one way or the other.”

One negative factor is that while learning virtually, some students experienced difficulties with access due to technology, family language barriers and other household circumstances, Harper said.  

“If you looked at years where there aren’t drastic interruptions in learning compared to recent years with interruptions, national trends show that our scholars have been negatively impacted by limited access,” he said.  

Internally, the district utilizes data from the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress Growth data, a math, reading and science assessment given to K-8 students three times throughout the school year. The system provides teachers with information about each student and strategies for meeting their needs above or below grade level. GRPS also uses NWEA MAP Reading Fluency as a more extensive measurement for K-5 students.

A portion of the district’s pandemic emergency relief funds has gone toward interventions based on these assessments. If students need one-on-one support, teachers can organize small groups to help them.

“All scholars deserve to learn at their grade level, and we’re meeting them where they are,” Harper said. “A mixed approach using state and federal funding allowed us the opportunity to expand services so no scholar gets left behind.”

COVID Funds Funneled to Academics, Support 

Rockford Public Schools likewise took advantage of state and federal funds to help students recover emotionally and academically from the pandemic. The district hired two instructional coaches, a teacher consultant for special education programming, a mental health liaison and an elementary school social worker. It also increased paraprofessional hours by 152 hours per week to help with small group instruction and individual tutoring. 

‘Every single student has gone through a lot, something they will never forget for the rest of their lives.’

— Lissa Weidenfeller, North Rockford Middle School principal

But even before unfinished learning loss showed up in test results, the district was making major shifts to fill in the achievement gaps created by pandemic stressors. Mike Ramm, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, gives credit to teachers who moved quickly to change the way they teach.

“Our teachers 100% took care of our kids academically and emotionally and opened up their ability to learn during a challenging time,” Ramm said.

Despite those challenges, some districts have already brought students back to pre-pandemic levels, and others should do so more quickly than expected, said Davie Store of Kent ISD.

“Where I hear three to five years (getting back) to where we are supposed to be, I am very optimistic for our county that I think we will probably get where we are supposed to get in record time,” Store said.

Joanne Boorsma, Alexis Stark, Allison Poosawtsee and Erin Albanese contributed to this report.

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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