School districts accelerate learning

First grader Natalia Ramirez, right, plays go-fish with classmates during an intervention group held at Newhall Elementary School in Newhall on Wednesday, 111021. Dan Watson/The Signal

 COVID-19 disrupted learning for millions of children nationwide, and local students were no exception. As school districts across Los Angeles County faced uncertainty, many pivoted to an online learning model to ensure student education. 

And, as they have returned to in-person classes, they’ve pivoted once again to see what educational gaps need to be shored up in the wake of the past year and a half of online learning. 

The four local elementary school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley — Sulphur Springs Union School District, Castaic Union School District, Saugus Union School District and Newhall School District — returned to in-person classes in August. As a result of a year of online instruction, they are accelerating learning for students who struggle in high-priority areas such as literacy and mathematics.   

“We have assessments every few weeks, and we are monitoring that data, but it’s too soon to tell how well the kids are doing academically,” said Jezelle Fullwood, the assistant superintendent of educational services at Sulphur Springs.   

Sulphur Springs is addressing student needs as they come, but overall, it will take some time to see the whole picture of how online learning through a pandemic affected their students.  

“Districts received additional funding to help support the mitigation of learning loss through Expanded Learning Opportunities Grants,” Fullwood said. “We have a lot of strategies and personnel that we wrote into those plans to help our students who need extra support.”  

The California Department of Education offered local educational agencies, or LEAs, the opportunity to apply for in-person instruction and ELO grants.   

Teacher, Kimberly Spendlove, right, plays a memory game with first-graders during an intervention group held at Newhall Elementary School in Newhall on Wednesday, 111021. Dan Watson/The Signal

The department provided in-person instruction grants to schools offering continuous instruction through the end of the 2020-21 school year. Also, the state granted ELOs to LEAs with plans to accelerate learning and close learning gaps.  

The Sulphur Springs district used a specialized program, the Orton-Gillingham Approach, to teach students phonics and focus on early literacy. The literacy program is a direct and multisensory method to help students with learning disabilities or those who need additional assistance, according to Fullwood.  

In addition, the district also created a position called learning support teacher. There are two at each school, and they help students who struggle with language arts.   

These teachers pull out students for specialized tier two and tier three interventions. Each tier describes a certain level of assistance a student may need.  

Kim Tredick, assistant superintendent of educational services at the Castaic district, reiterated how they, too, are seeing some students struggling in those high-priority areas.  

“We are focused on moving forward and our teachers are focusing on high-priority standards,” Tredick said.   

SCV school districts are addressing potential learning loss in their students through various intervention groups, specialized programs and activities, newly created positions, and a focus on the social-emotional needs of their students.   

“I think the hardest part about coming back from 18 months of a different format of school for students is adjusting to the return of in-person learning,” said Colleen Hawkins, superintendent for the Saugus district.   

Some Saugus district students were unable to attend preschool because of the pandemic, Hawkins added. Those students have not had the opportunity to experience school in a larger setting.   

Substitute teacher Beverly Graham, center, works with first-graders during an intervention group held at Newhall Elementary School in Newhall on Wednesday, 111021. Dan Watson/The Signal

“If you think about teaching to the whole child — it’s about making sure that you have those social-emotional experiences and those connected relationships between students and the adults so that real learning and teaching can take place in the classroom,” Hawkins said.   

Isolation harms students’ lives by causing depression and anxiety, which, in turn affects how they learn, she said. The district will address any of its students’ needs to help them succeed, she said. 

Dee Jamison, the assistant superintendent of instructional services at the Newhall School District, said the district had developed a comprehensive approach for supporting students before the pandemic.   

“The premise was that students were provided with what they needed (any assistance in any subject area), and school teams would come together and look at student outcomes,” Jamison said. “They would then allow students to extend their learning because we know that students come at all levels of that continuum in their learning.”  

The Newhall district uses FastBridge, a screening program, to monitor student progress in reading, math and social-emotional behavior. They also used the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress System to identify students who are at no-risk and high-risk.   

“We have clarity around what we needed to do,” Jamison said. “You need to have data, knowledge, you need to have the personnel to be able to support and more important than anything, you need that excellent first teaching.”  

Hillary Hall, a teacher at Pico Canyon Elementary School and co-president of the Newhall Teachers Association, said they are working with their students every day to help them overcome learning obstacles.  

Hall teaches sixth-grade students. She said online learning affected younger students, primarily kindergarten through second grade. Older students were more capable of adjusting to the changes brought on by the pandemic.   

However, those students are now third- or fourth-graders, and teachers see issues with their foundational literacy and arithmetic skills, she added.   

“We are exposing our kids to the materials, but they’re not necessarily mastering it as quickly as they might have in the past because they’re having to rebuild their skills first,” Hall said. “They’re filling those gaps and I have confidence in our students. They’ll get (the education) they need.” 

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