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Here’s What Three Kansas City Districts Are Trying To Get Students Caught Up

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
High school students in many districts spent this school year transitioning between in-person and remote instruction.

A lot of kids aren't meeting grade-level expectations after a year of interruptions. Here's how the Lee's Summit, North Kansas City and Kearney school districts are addressing COVID-19 learning loss.

COVID-19 has disrupted learning for all students, even those whose schools have been open for months, and teachers are preparing for some significant learning gaps.

In Lee’s Summit, some of those students have ended up at Summit Ridge Academy, the district’s alternative program. It’s a small school that typically only serves about 130 students. However, at the height of the pandemic when Lee’s Summit middle and high schools were remote, enrollment at Summit Ridge ticked up to 165.

Principal Andy Campbell said most of the new Summit Ridge students weren’t ready for remote learning.

“Or their learning style wasn’t suited to a virtual environment. I can say pretty confidently that 95% of the kids who come here are in some form of credit lag,” Campbell said.

For most Summit Ridge students, the goal is to get them caught up so they can graduate from their home high school. That process always begins with a meeting with a student’s family. Campbell said parents often have preconceived notions about what alternative education will look like.

“One of my least favorite things to hear is, ‘That’s where all the bad kids go to school.’ Absolutely not the case at Summit Ridge Academy. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never worked with a single bad kid over here,” Campbell said.

This year, because of the pandemic, Campbell’s met with a lot of parents who never expected their child to need an alternative program.

“I wish there was a better term. We haven’t really come up with one yet. I like to describe it meaning ‘alternative to the regular setting.’ We just give kids a different look at school,” he said.

Right now, most parents are worried about the impact the pandemic has had on their children’s schooling. There’s hope for a normal school year next year as kids become eligible for vaccines.

But next year may not be normal, either, with so many students needing extra help.

Unknown effects

Everyone’s talking about COVID-19 learning loss, but education researchers say it’s too soon to know what the pandemic’s impact will be.

“I do hear anecdotally from teachers that they’re beginning to get a sense of what the cost has been for kids, but I think the field is really flying blind,” said Eric Camburn, the director of the Urban Education Research Institute at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

That’s because existing education research just doesn’t take into account COVID-19. For example, take retention, which is the practice of holding kids back.

“I think it’s pretty common knowledge the sort of pitfalls of retention,” Camburn said. “For kids who’ve made it through an entire school year, it’s not a great practice.”

But some haven’t made it through an entire school year. If students didn’t log into their online classrooms consistently, the existing research on retention wouldn’t apply.

Camburn said it might make more sense to look at attendance research. And that’s pretty unambiguous: Kids fall behind their peers when they miss a lot of class.

That has many districts trying to add instructional time.

“So what we have decided to do is extend summer school,” said Raquel Coy, the principal at Clardy Elementary in North Kansas City. “So we’re offering it in both June and July, and we’re expanding the mode of instruction so it can be in-person or online.”

North Kansas City is planning on offering extended summer school in June and July this summer so that kids can stay connected to their teachers and classmates.
North Kansas City Schools
North Kansas City is planning on offering extended summer school in June and July this summer so that kids can stay connected to their teachers and classmates.

Coy said some families wanted an online option because a family member is high-risk for COVID-19, so they’re continuing to take pandemic precautions. Other families wanted the flexibility to travel and do things that weren’t safe last summer.

“We’re hearing from our families and our students that they still want to be connected to their learning communities,” Coy said. “They still want to be academically engaged, and I think that's just going to help continue to build their confidence that they are prepared to go into the next grade.”

Coy said educators have a responsibility to know when kids show up with gaps, and the pandemic didn’t change that.

“I think academically we have a good sense of where our kids are and what we need to do, but I think the part that’s increased tremendously is the whole social-emotional piece,” Coy said. “Peer interaction is something we know is important for our students. How can we increase those opportunities? How can we celebrate our students’ accomplishments?”

Priority standards

Ali Stewart is a reading interventionist with the Kearney School District. She didn’t know what to expect going into the school year. Like a lot of educators, she thought schools would open, then close again.

“So we took a look at what every student is expected to learn, and we chose what we call the ‘die on the hill’ standards. You know, what is necessary for a student to go on to the next grade level,” Stewart said.

A woman wearing a mask sits at a desk with two elementary students.
Kearney School District
Ali Stewart is a reading interventionist with the Kearney School District. She's worked with teachers and students this year to address learning gaps after students missed the end of the 2019-20 school year.

Missouri education officials call these priority standards, and they told educators to teach them in case COVID-19 shortened instructional time.

For example, in third grade, students are supposed to learn how to summarize what they’ve read. Being able to recall and understand what you read is a life skill. So Stewart’s team gave third grade teachers in Kearney instructional materials that really focused on summarizing. They did this for all grades and all priority standards.

In September, when students at Kearney Elementary took school assessments, 37% were reading below grade level. A lot of the usual strategies, like pulling kids out for small group reading instruction, were off limits because of coronavirus precautions.

But teachers structured lessons so that the most important skills would keep recurring. And by March, just 13% of students at Kearney Elementary were reading below grade level. That means two-thirds of the kids who’d been behind caught up.

“When we got our March scores in, we had so much growth that it was a little bit of a sigh of relief. Like, our kids are going to be OK,” Stewart said. “Our kids are resilient.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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