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6 ways to help students catch up this year

What a California school district is doing to support students’ learning recovery.

6 min read

Educational Leadership

6 ways to help students catch up this year


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Students need a consistent environment to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many have had the opposite of that.

Now that students are back to in-person learning in Arcadia Unified School District, we are striving to bring back the consistency they depend on while addressing learning loss and other challenges.

Here are six things we are doing to help students transition back to school and catch up this fall.

Make the most of existing systems

Our district’s teaching staff is exceptional. They are highly qualified, dedicated and professional. So, the key to our success has not been a new piece of software or curriculum. It’s been leaning into who we are and what we have always done — identifying needs and providing timely interventions. For years, AUSD has implemented a Multi-Tiered System of Support to identify struggling students early and intervene quickly. Even with all that has changed since March 2020, the MTSS framework is reliably and consistently helping our schools address students’ most pressing academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs.

We have also continued with other district-wide programs and strategies — such as Universal Design for Learning, The Leader in Me and restorative practices — now that everyone is back on campus. In addition to providing consistency, these initiatives foster positive, healthy, productive school experiences.

Ask “what if?” and “why not?”

Three years ago we started a journey to more clearly define AUSD’s purpose and values. In the first year, we focused on “What If?” — asking questions that challenged our assumptions and traditional practices. The following year we asked “Why Not?” — encouraging risk-taking while identifying hurdles and barriers that impeded innovation so they could be resolved.

This year, we continue to encourage students, teachers, and all of our stakeholders to bring forward innovative ideas by asking these powerful questions. By embracing our mission to “Imagine, Inquire, and Inspire,” we are actively designing an education system that matches what our students need to be equipped for their world today.

Know what students, teachers have gained

While it is essential to acknowledge and address issues like learning loss, it is also important to recognize what has been gained. Our students have faced enormous adversity since the start of the pandemic, and their lives have been altered in countless ways. As a result of these experiences, they are building important traits such grit and resilience, and developing and honing their problem-solving skills. These traits and skills are conducive to optimal learning and well-being in school and in life.

Our staff’s toolbelt has grown as well. The pandemic created a massive shift to digital teaching and learning, which is a positive for students and teachers. While we have not completely abandoned paper and traditional materials, all of our teachers are now making much greater use of technology tools, such as Chromebooks and Google Classroom, to manage and enrich students’ learning experiences, simplify daily tasks, and increase communication with parents.

Add hours for learning into the school day

As we have transitioned back to the classroom this fall, we have come to acknowledge that we simply don’t have enough time during the school day to do everything that’s needed to meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. Providing extended day enrichment has been a vital part of our efforts to support students and make the most of every minute they spend at school.

Since 2016, we have partnered with Right At School to offer before and after school enrichment at all six elementary schools and three middle schools. Our before school program starts at 6:30 AM and the after school program runs until 5 PM. Some students spend up to four extra hours a day at school — which is a significant amount of time to address learning loss, bolster social-emotional learning, provide homework help, offer fitness activities and games, and build community.

One thing that has made extended day enrichment successful in our district is that our students don’t view it as being separate from school. Our enrichment program provider knows our curriculum. They work hand in hand with our teachers and participate in the same professional development that our teachers do. They use the same academic language and have the same behavior expectations for students. That continuity leads to enhanced learning experiences, and students are so engaged that they don’t even realize they are learning.

Extended day enrichment also provides a much-needed support for working parents. Parents can sign up for before or after school programs or both, and choose from one to five days a week. Having flexible childcare options, rather than a one-size-fits-all program, works much better for AUSD families, particularly during these uncertain times.

Make sure partners share district values

Whether we are looking for a math curriculum, an air conditioning unit, or after school childcare program, we only partner with people and organizations that share our values. Our AUSD values — which we defined by collectively asking “What if?” and “Why not?” — are:

  • Collaborate
  • Think Critically
  • Be Creative
  • Offer Empathy
  • Learn from Failure

These values drive our everyday decisions and those of our partners, too. We also share a commitment to address the needs of the whole child, which is crucial to help students catch up this fall.

See challenges as opportunities

The field of public education continues to evolve and challenge all of us. The world we send our students into each year is not the world we once knew. By recognizing challenges as opportunities — and as the chance to make a profound impact on our students — we can overcome the obstacles of today, mold the leaders of tomorrow and make our world a better place for generations to come.

David Vannasdall, Ed.D., is superintendent of Arcadia Unified School District in Arcadia, Calif. AUSD uses Right at School.


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