Schools are still figuring out how to add time for academic recovery during and after the regular school day to help students catch up from the upheaval of pandemic-era schooling.
It’s not always easy, given the constraints of the school day schedule and the logistics of staffing, not to mention the barrage of vendors offering their recovery services and products. Many principals are in uncharted territory and are most likely defaulting to the traditional ways of doing things—and that’s likely limiting access to accelerated learning and other academic recovery, according to Sarah Woulfin, a professor in the department of educational leadership at the University of Texas, Austin.
“Leaders have more agency than it looks like on paper, and yet we’re still not seeing those leaders making leaps into action and shifting things around in their schedules and in their use of time,” Woulfin said.
Providing effective learning recovery also requires a mix of instructional and managerial leadership—whether it’s adding a new tutoring program or adjusting the pacing of the curriculum—and some of it is brand new terrain for principals.
“There isn’t a roadmap for it,” Woulfin said. “[School leaders] haven’t been in this scenario before to figure how would we shift the 7th grade curriculum to accelerate in a certain way, or what are the tradeoffs of pulling kids from certain classes to do math tutoring in certain grade levels, or how do we ensure that the right kids sign up for online tutoring that restores equitable outcomes—because certain things could even end up getting exacerbated through these tutoring or accelerated learning efforts.”
And despite millions of dollars from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (or ESSER) still available to spend in districts, school systems have not always given local principals the flexibility to create tailor-made programs that would work for their specific schools and communities.
But some districts and principals have found ways to carve out dedicated time on school days to help students recoup learning—or keep them from falling further behind. Here are ideas from three of them.
Larry Haynes, the principal of Oak Mountain Middle School in Shelby County, Ala., got a $7,500 state grant to overcome a frequent roadblock to tacking academic recovery programs at the end of the school day: transportation.
The grant allowed Haynes to cover a stipend for the school bus driver to pick up students attending a 90-minute after-school tutoring program and pay two teachers to help students meet state math and English/language arts standards.
Academic gaps existed before the pandemic, but they widened during the pandemic as the number of home-schooled students ballooned and the level of attention and support students received at home varied, Haynes said.
Finding time during the school day can be a struggle, Haynes said, with leaders having to weigh whether to remove students from lunch, physical education, or other classes to get extra academic support in core subjects.
The school first expanded its advisory period from 30 to 55 minutes to help students focus more on standards recovery in math and reading. Subject-area teachers work with students in the areas in which they need help.
The school later added the 90-minute after-school tutoring program, with 45 minutes devoted to math support and 45 minutes for reading and English/language arts.
The three-day-a-week program is offered to students who test below their grade level on an i-Ready diagnostic or the state assessment. Attendance varies, from eight or nine students per session to 30, Haynes said.
In Gray Court, S.C., Principal Farrell C. Thomas used federal COVID relief money to target academic recovery.
While leading Waterloo Elementary School, a K-5 school, Thomas set up a grade-level-based after-school tutoring program for students. Over six-week periods, students identified as needing help attended the twice-a-week program heavily focused on phonics and reading. It was staffed by teachers in the school.
Early-childhood education is not mandatory in South Carolina, so students have always entered schools with different levels of preparedness, Thomas said. But the pandemic exacerbated the learning gaps among the youngest students, who had to start their K-12 journey online.
The program was small, with no more than 10 or more students per grade and two grade-level teachers per grade. The goal was to keep the program as close to a one-to-one ratio as possible as students worked toward strengthening or developing critical skills, Thomas said.
Now a prinicipal at a middle school, Thomas set up a similar 90-minute tutoring session targeted at older students who consistently scored below the 20th percentile on assessments.
A student struggling in 6th grade math, for example, would be referred to the program by their teacher, while the school’s instructional coach reaches out to the child’s parents to inform them that their child has been identified as needing additional help. Assistance is offered primarily in math and English.
Teachers keep track of the student’s progress on assignments and assessments. While the program is six weeks long, some students stay longer.
Haynes said he’d increase the number of days students can get help if he had more money to do so.
When the program first started in the 2020-21 school year, teachers received $60 an hour to participate. Now it’s about $20—not enough to entice a lot of teachers who are already overworked, Thomas said.
“Teachers are burnt out,” he said. “If I had multiple teachers who wanted to do it, Monday through Thursday, we would to it. But we can’t get them. Some are reluctant. Some say one day. So you don’t have the continuity of the kid having the same person.”
School leaders and teachers don’t necessarily have to tack on additional programs in the school day to help students regain the ground they’ve lost, Haynes said. Good teaching practices—along with professional-development support for teachers on how to help students who are behind—can go a long way.
Principal Mary Fulp used a $20,000 allocation from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough school district in Palmer, Alaska, to set up a 45-minute lunchtime academic support program for students who had been flagged as needing assistance.
The district developed an early-warning system, where teachers reported grades and other evidence of student progress on days following a graded assignment. That allowed principals to develop just-in-time academic assistance for students to help them complete assignments and move from incomplete grades to C grades or higher.
A color-coded system indicated to principals, like Fulp, who led Colony Middle School last year, which students should be flagged for extra help. A student coded red, with a grade of D or below, for example, was pulled aside for the lunchtime support.
“We made it a very positive thing as much as possible because we knew that they are losing valuable social time,” Fulp said. “We knew it was working when kids started to choose it.”
The school-family relationship was part of what made the program successful, Fulp said.
School officials sent a message to parents on Fridays letting them know that their child needed to earn a C or higher in a class and that they could get extra help in the lunchtime program. School officials also gave parents other academic support options, including online tutoring, that they could use at home to help their children, Fulp said.
Students also played a huge role. They sent a weekly Friday email to their parents about their goals for the week, what they’d accomplished, and their plans to address any issues with their grades.
“Everyone had a different need,” Fulp said. “It was almost like every student was on an individualized learning plan in order to help them move forward. They were all at different places with hardships, and learning, and mental health concerns that led to where they were.”
The lunchroom program was staffed by one person, but other teachers gave up their lunch period to pitch in. Teachers got a $175 honorarium when the number of hours they devoted to the program reached the equivalent of a full day’s worth of work.
Lindsay Jack, the librarian at Colony Middle School, who oversaw the program, said it was successful, helping students finish, on average, about four missing assignments they would not have otherwise completed.
But there were drawbacks. The first was that only a few students were able to attend— about 60 students, or 20 or so per grade level, Fulp said. The teachers staffing the program were not always experts in the areas where students were struggling. And with 10 minutes devoted to lunch, students had only about half an hour to work with the teacher and complete their assignments, she said.
The school took all of that to heart and improved the program this year, increasing the amount of time students spend with a teacher and ensuring that that time is spent with the subject expert in the area in which the students were struggling.
In the new iteration, students spend 55 minutes during designated “focus” time with the teacher. (That means that a child who is having trouble in multiple subjects could potentially get an additional 55 minutes a week of academic support in each subject.)
Jack monitors the grades of the students who had been recommended to the program. The school has also started an after-school math tutoring program for students who need extra help, Jack said.