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  • Writer's pictureAnne

What is Being Done to Improve Academic Excellence? A Look at Cooperative Middle School

Our area schools will soon head into holiday break, so it’s an opportune time to assess what’s been done to make up for the academic gaps faced by students, and the results of that work. Last year most students in our district did not receive full-time academic instruction from their teachers and (as discussed in a previous blog post) the rankings in our schools reflect the lack of academic rigor that has occurred over the last several years.

Today, our students’ proficiency data was published by the NH Department of Education. The results are bleak and can be viewed here.

Cooperative Middle School (CMS), 2021

CMS, 2021

In short, at CMS

  • 39% of students are not proficient in ELA

  • 58% of students are not proficient in science

  • 61% of students are not proficient in math

This should not be a surprise–study after study indicates the ineffectiveness of virtual learning for K-12 students. A report published by the CDC itself found “virtual learning might present more risks than in-person instruction related to child mental and emotional health.” The two main findings corroborated by studies from the CDC which include organizations: The Voice of the Educator, Horace Mann, McKinsey & Company and Donors Choose:

  • More than half of K-12 public school teachers said that students experienced a “significant” learning loss both academically and socially, and 97% of teachers reported some degree of learning loss in all their students

  • Distance learning causes a significant setback in achievement especially among Black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities.

So, we know remote learning is not as effective as in person learning. We also know CMS and EHS were two of the last schools in the state to re-open to in-person, classroom learning and compounding the crisis, the academic year was also shortened by 40 minutes per day. It is simply not reasonable to expect these results to be higher than they are. So what are we doing to remedy this problem?

Since CMS seems to be facing the most problems in the academic arena, I decided to read over my notes from the Cooperative Regional School Board meetings that I’ve attended, as well as the minutes from those that I was not able to be present, to get an understanding as to what was being done to get our students back on track.

I began by examining what programs were implemented over the summer to help those students that needed the support. Personally when I think of summer school, I think of small classes that are designed for those students that likely fell behind over the previous school year. I would imagine that these classes would center around the foundational courses needed for graduation - math, English, science, social studies. During the August 3 school board meeting, Superintendent Ryan discussed the Summer Learning Academy, and mentioned that it was designed to offer learning over the summer, but “not a traditional summer school.” Instead it was designed to be project-based. Those from CMS who attended engaged in the following types of activities:

  • A field trip to Emery Farm

  • Learning about composting

  • A focus on gratitude and a field trip to Gundalow Company

  • A trip to the Portsmouth Escape Room

  • Creating visual art and poetry

Moving along, a month later at the September 21 cooperative meeting, Superintendent Ryan admitted that there is a lot of improvement to make regarding academics in our schools. In a principal report by Ms. Hersey, she reported that the community wanted high academics and that’s what the FLEX periods provide, with 36 new courses for students. I’m glad that the school is providing students with the opportunity for new courses and for the chance to let students choose what interests them. However, this seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Again, how are they tackling the academic gaps? Shouldn’t a strong foundation be built first before new additions are added?

Ms. Hersey explained the FLEX periods and the steps that were being made to bring students up to speed during the November 4 Budget Advisory Committee meeting. She explained that more than 30 courses were added with the FLEX block. She gave examples of these, which include the following:

  • Inventions

  • Recycled materials

  • Coding

  • Artistic pursuits

  • Plants based courses

She explained that the purpose of these courses is to “light a spark in the students'' after COVID. Again, I ask the question as to how this is helping students with core academic subjects? To identify gaps in learning, students were given the iReady test for math and reading as well as formative assessments from teachers. At the date of this meeting, there were 150 students in interventions, and the amount of extra help they receive depends on how far behind they are from their grade level. Nothing was mentioned about what, if anything, was being done for detriments in language arts, science or social studies. And how is the success of this program being measured?

Then just last week I had been informed, by several parents, about staffing issues at CMS, which has caused another interruption in their day-to-day learning. This information was not sent to them by the school, principal, or any other administrators. Instead parents were made aware about what has been happening by their own children. Because of the shortage of substitute teachers, middle school students have been spending one, or more, class periods in the auditorium. Here are a few of the comments from parents regarding this issue:

  • “My sixth grader was in the auditorium for four class periods today.”

  • “My daughter was in the auditorium for three classes yesterday. In one of them there were a total of nine classes in the auditorium at the same time.”

  • “They were told to go on IXL or do other random work. No instruction for three periods!”

  • “I just asked my son and he said yes when his teachers are out they have to go in the auditorium.”

  • “We just learned that recently too. If a teacher is out, classes go to the auditorium. My kid saw five classes in the auditorium the other day.”

Students are reporting that they are mainly spending the time doing iReady programs on their chromebooks, watching videos, or watching YouTube.

We all know that staffing shortages are hitting every business and industry in our communities, and in our schools there have always been difficulties maintaining a strong substitute teacher pool. However, what has been done to try to remedy this problem? Was there any foresight that there would be a problem with this, and were backup plans put in place so they’re ready to implement when substitutes are needed? And why did parents have to hear about this from their own children? Others have had to inquire because they were informed by other parents.

While we now have students in school five days a week, they’re again–or still–experiencing disruptions to their learning. It’s now December, and from the reports being given at these meetings, by the descriptions of what is actually happening at CMS coming directly from students, and from the latest data showing the lack of proficiency among our middle school students, I have grave concerns about how the strive for academic excellence is being addressed.

In the business world, companies are finding solutions to get things done in the face of the pandemic and its many challenges. When it comes to education, we need to do better. Earlier this year, Superintendent Ryan created a 30 person task force to analyze the community Covid transmission rates each week and subsequent communication to the parents, and while collaboration is to be commended, shouldn't there be the same focus on meeting the academic needs of our students? What professional development are we providing to help our teachers adapt to the new normal? Have we put out an urgent call to the community for substitute teachers and/or offered an increase in hourly pay?

It seems there are buzzwords thrown around at school board and committee meetings, but what tangibly is being done? In short, not much. Meanwhile, our students continue to suffer. We need to find a better way to help our students. Enough talk. Enough excuses.

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