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Communities and educators address learning loss

This close up image shows the hands of two students working together to solve math problems written in a spiral notebook.
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VPM News Focal Point
Student test scores in math and reading show significant declines.

School closures and challenges with virtual learning during the pandemic are likely contributing factors to lower test scores in Virginia.

As the 2023-24 school year continues, educators are focused on how to make up ground from learning losses that occurred during the formal COVID-19 pandemic. As individuals, organizations and government entities intervene, it’s become apparent that these efforts address more than the academics and test scores.

October 2022 marked the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the biennial measurement of fourth- and eighth-grade achievement, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Since then, education and government leaders have been focused on the unprecedented drop in student scores, which are measured on a 500-point scale.

Virginia’s fourth grade students fell below the national average in reading for the first time in 30 years and landed only slightly above average in math. (The NAEP considers Virginia's fourth-grade reading score of 214 not significantly different than the national average of 216.) Eighth grade scores fell significantly, as well.

Virginia’s loss recovery plans

School closures and challenges with virtual learning during the pandemic are likely contributing factors to the lower scores. In response, Virginia launched a multi-pronged plan to support learning recovery earlier this year. Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced Learning Acceleration Grants amounting to $30 million, later doubled to $60 million, available through the state’s Department of Education.

Under the grant, students could receive $1,500 or $3,000, depending on family income, to use for tutoring or other learning support. The funds depleted quickly, and the program encountered a number of administrative obstacles in the implementation prior to its closure over the summer. Funds awarded during the initial stages were to be used by Sept. 1 with additional awards promised for low-income students in the fall.

VDOE also has a program to analyze student data to improve intervention outcomes. For this effort, called Bridging the Gap, dozens of public school divisions opted to participate in a pilot during the 2022-23 school year. SAS Institute, a third-party vendor headquartered in North Carolina, then analyzes the data using a system it calls Educational Visualization and Analytics Solution (EVAAS).

The pilot plan called for using available student test scores and other data to create individualized student plans for instructional support and share those with school administrators, teachers and parents at the start of this school year.

The Youngkin administration also introduced a partnership with the Urban League and Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) to address what the governor called “catastrophic learning loss.”

Under this initiative, HBCU students are paid to tutor K-12 students, administered by Urban League offices. At the time of the announcement, in November 2022, Youngkin said he expected to help approximately 1,300 Virginia students with the support of 175 students from the state’s HBCUs. That program is ongoing.

Addressing deeper need

In Hampton Roads, the Youngkin HBCU initiative was in force throughout the summer, as the local Urban League coordinated community collaboration for the benefit of young learners.

Urban League's John Stean, the assistant director of tutoring and mentoring services, described the work: “It's a partnership between the Urban League of Hampton Roads, Norfolk State University, and Next Step to Success. We have an overarching program called the tutoring and mentoring initiative that runs during the school year.”

Stean described the academic tutoring as a mainstay of the school-year mission, but he said summer afforded a chance to also focus on students’ other, deeper needs — the Picture Your Purpose activities that brought the groups together in August, for example.

“While many of the factors that are leading to the work responding to learning loss are based on standardized test scores and other great tangible metrics, some of the causes can be a little more difficult to identify, I think much of it has to do with a disconnect, that students feel from their peers, from their academic careers, from their hopes for the future,” Stean said.

Aniya Doss, a Norfolk State student, said that her mentees need academic help just as much as they need help connecting or reconnecting with others after isolating during the pandemic.

“[It’s] trying to get them to adapt to different environments, other than being face-to-face on a computer and that interaction with other humans,” Doss said. “So that in the classroom setting, they’re able to interact with their peers, their classmates, their teachers, knowing how to adapt to different people, and different climates and classrooms.”

I tell parents to stop saying they weren't good at math.
—Delores Spencer

Although she is not part of any state initiative, Delores Spencer became a one-woman tour de force for students in Hampton Roads and beyond during the pandemic. It was her love for math and a desire to spark that same passion in others that drew the Hampton resident out of her retirement and into the virtual stratosphere.

“Math was my major and physics, my minor. So I taught both math and science through the years. But my first love is math,” said Spencer.

She had retired from Newport News Public Schools in 1991, but when the pandemic struck in 2020, she was immediately concerned about the negative impact on student learning. At the age of 88, she picked up the virtual chalk and began to teach math live on Facebook each week, tailoring her lessons to student and parent requests from across the nation and around the world.

“I had students watching from all the states, basically, all the states, Virginia, and California and New York and Ohio, and Connecticut, and overseas — India, and Puerto Rico. ... In fact, when it was overseas, the parent had to sit beside the child sometimes, because of the language barriers.”

Spencer saw great variety among her audience, which grew to more than 1,000 viewers per installment. She strove to make math understandable and accessible for public school students, homeschooled learners, parents, other educators and adults who wanted to review concepts.

For nearly two years, Mrs. Spencer’s Math Lab was a reliable, weekly event until a fall in 2021 forced her to stop. After a protracted hospitalization and having to learn to speak, eat and walk again, at 91 Spencer is again taking on tutoring clients.

She hasn’t decided whether she might relaunch the math lab, but Spencer said it became clear during her math instructor encore that too many learners are unsure of themselves — and that there is an opportunity to remedy this.

Spencer also said one problem is having parents who talk about their own math experiences in terms of fear and failure.

“I tell parents to stop saying that they weren’t good at math,” she said.

A bigger problem, Spencer said, lies in the way many schools are using: teaching steps instead of explaining foundational concepts.

“That's just learning a skill without reasoning. That's not good. Because it doesn't go to the next level. That's the problem. It does not go with you to the next level. And math should be continuous,” said Spencer. The pandemic, she said, created an opportunity for her to influence students in Virginia and globally so that they improve their outcomes by thinking differently about math.

A unified approach

When Antonia Fox began as superintendent of Page County Schools in 2021, the coronavirus pandemic was affecting how students learned and how they lived. Fox notes that hers is a beautiful community, located in one of the most scenic areas of Virginia. It’s also a high-poverty district, like many across the state, where some families rely on school being open to meet some of their children’s basic needs.

In the 2021-22 school year, during a time of virtual learning, partial days and quarantines, Fox and her team decided to open for full-day schooling five days a week. It was possible, according to Fox, in part because of how personally PCS employees take their jobs.

“Many of them went through our schools. We have a large percentage of our staff who went to Page County Schools and came back or just stayed here and got jobs with us. But the word you'll hear all the time is that we're family,” she said. “We really try to treat each other like that we try to respect each other and care for each other.”

That sense of unity applies throughout the community. Fox listed a few agencies the school division relies on to provide support for student learning and general well-being: Page Alliance for Community Action, Valley Health, the Northwestern Community Services Board, government services and a number of faith-based partnerships.

High on her list is the West Luray Recreation Center, aka TheREC, which opened in 2018. TheREC founder Audre King said the center took a responsive approach to the needs of Page’s young people. To become more than a place to gather and socialize, TheREC incrementally began to offer mental health services, a gym and outdoor park and a kitchen to serve hot meals for kids after school. During the pandemic and continuing today, TheREC brings in volunteers to tutor dozens of students in their academic subjects.

“When we identify a need,” he said, “we do what we can to meet it. And we have been fortunate to have businesses and individuals willing to support us as we support Page County youth.”

When some of our kids come into our school buildings, they may not be ready and focused to learn, so we have to address those needs first.
—Antonia Fox, Page County superintendent

As head of the school division, Fox carefully accounts for the varied contributions to student learning, beyond what happens within the curriculum.

“About 78% of our students are on free and reduced lunch services. Poverty is an unfortunate part of what we do have to deal with. And with that comes all of those other things then just make it so much more challenging for some of those families. When some of our kids come into our school buildings, they may not be ready and focused to learn, so we have to address those needs first, and we're not alone in that,” she said.

Page is among those schools that have begun offering extra services, extra tutoring and after-school activities for students to mitigate the effects of learning loss. Page is also a participant in the state’s Bridging the Gap trial. Fox said the data available through participation gives her educators additional tools to teach more strategically and effectively. She says, also, that while the data will certainly make a positive difference, it won’t make all of the difference.

Fox points out the many families that experienced job losses during the pandemic, speaking of students who became homeless or went without food and other necessities — some for the first time. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in mid-2020 that more than 41 million people went without work due to COVID-19 during the early days.)

Academics, she said, is just one part of what’s expected and needed from public schools if people are interested in supporting the whole child.

In Page, Fox credits her teachers, counselors, custodians, school bus drivers and food service personnel who take it upon themselves to recognize what students need and provide whatever that might be.

“When they see a child in need, they're going to say, ‘This child needs help. How can we help them?’” Fox said. “And that's critical to the learning loss. Because if those pieces are in place, then that child can focus on learning to read or can find the slope of a formula in math class. And that's critical to where we have to go as a community as a state and, I feel, as a nation as well.”

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Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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