The great catch up

PCSD summer school programs try to move students past learning loss, disruptions caused by the pandemic

By John Donegan

This story originally appeared in the 7/23/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.

The humidity of a northern July day hung over Park Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday, July 20, as students huddled around their science teacher and the noncontact thermometer in her hand.

They were tasked with taking temperatures, measuring the effects of sunlight on various objects outside. The teacher, fourth-grade science instructor Vanessa Marallano, asked students to pick out different surfaces they thought would be affected by the heat. They spent the longest time measuring the shade, resting together under the playground set to swap answers and triple-check their findings.

In another class, fifth-graders listen to science teacher Diana Berrios explain the anatomy of different cetaceans—whales, porpoises and dolphins. Each student has their own toy cetacean beside them, floating in a tray of water. This lesson, like the one on temperature, is not necessarily a part of the school-year curriculum. It is instead part of a much larger, interdisciplinary approach the district launched for students this summer to combat learning loss inflicted by the COVID-19 remote environment.

While summer school is traditionally for those who have fallen behind and need extra help, the Port Chester School District is taking it a step further, offering that help but also taking advantage of the lack of mandated curriculum to make learning fun.

Bryant Romano, an assistant principal at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, manages Park Avenue Elementary School’s Summer Learning Acceleration Program (SLAP). The program is offered for all four elementary schools and three of the campuses—Park Avenue currently houses King Street students while their building is used for summer camp.

Among the four schools, SLAP has 262 students enrolled, ranging between rising grades 1-5. The program began on July 6 and will continue Monday-Thursdays until July 29. Meanwhile, Port Chester Middle School introduced its summer program three days later, on July 9.

Funding for the $275,000 summer school program was made possible, according to Port Chester Deputy Superintendent Dr. Mitchell Combs, by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, both federal COVID-19 grants.

“Had we not received additional funding, it would have been difficult to have put together a summer program as robust as the one that’s happening,” Combs said.

Prior to last year’s virtual program, Port Chester Schools hadn’t had summer school as an option since 2017 due to a lack of funding. Before these programs, the district hadn’t before offered any summer enrichment courses either, at least not outside the high school.

The elementary summer school day runs from 9 a.m. to noon, with 45 minutes devoted to each subject—literacy, math and science.

Park Avenue science teacher Lindsey Chudoba wrote the curriculum for the science enrichment courses. Unlike math and literacy, the science classes are more hands-on, with lab days that take the kids outside to learn about things like temperature, soil and different types of animals—thematic courses too specific to cater to during the school year.

While the classes are all in-person, there are still barriers in place. Children still wear masks; they’re still separated by shields; they’re still socially distanced. And while this is still far from normal, Romano believes this version of summer school is far better than last year’s virtual model.

“We didn’t want to do anything virtual,” Romano said. “There’s just a different feel to it. When kids come in and they can see you and you can smile at them and you can read a student…that human connectivity was missing.”

Summer school is something few kids generally look forward to. But during these unprecedented times, in Port Chester it’s proving to be something kids are excited to attend.

“Some of our students are lucky and they get to go away; they might visit museums, they might travel,” Romano said. “Many of our students unfortunately don’t have that; their families are working class, they’re not home all day. Students are either with the babysitter, if they’re lucky enough to have one, or sitting in front of the TV taking care of their siblings. So, that summer slippage is real.”

Enrichment options for Port Chester Middle School

While Port Chester High School is not holding summer classes beyond the usual newcomer and recovery programs, the middle school is offering its own Secondary Summer Tutorial and Enrichment program. Like the elementary schools, the summer tutorial focuses on literacy and math and is recommended by teachers to students they feel could benefit the most from the help. One hundred fifty students, composed of rising sixth- through ninth-graders, are attending the program. Classes started three days after the elementary program, on July 9, and will continue until July 29, Monday-Thursdays, 8:30-11:30 a.m.

“So we had some summer tutorial for the kids we recommended attend to help them with their academic support, but we also opened up for some of the grade-level enrichment programs that they could sign up for,” said Port Chester Middle School Assistant Principal Christine Rascona.

Yet, whereas the elementary schools only offer science enrichment, options for middle school students are far more expansive. Educators offer lessons on gardening, engineering, team building and wellness, Italian, soccer, acting and one of the most popular: Dungeons and Dragons.

“I would say the most popular is engineering and Dungeons and Dragons,” Rascona said. “Though there’s a lot of kids trying everything out.”

For the enrichment courses, students got to select two for the first two weeks and two for the final few. That way if they wanted, they could take up to four different classes, or experience the same classes all the way through.

“We’ve had some kids that initially just wanted to stick with P.E., but we’ve actually found that it and the Health & Wellness course kind of go together, so a lot of them have decided to do one and then the other,” Rascona said.

The classes are largely without a curriculum and mainly entail projects and thematic topics. In Daniella Kay’s engineering class, for example, students built bridges out of plastic straws and tape. One of the bridges held 225 pennies without giving way.

“Like for engineering, they’ve been building bridges, doing tie-dye, etc.,” Rascona said. “When you see these classes going on, they are definitely doing a lot of fun things and it’s very engaging.

Which students could attend?

None of the summer programs are mandatory. Instead, educators at the elementary level sent out recommendations to parents whose children they felt would get the most out of additional literacy and math work over the summer. As families from that first invitation list either accepted or declined, the district invited more families to sign up based on student need.

“It’s not for students who are extremely struggling or falling behind, but who are on the cusp and could really be pushed so that they don’t have that summer slippage,” Romano said. “It’s a 15-day program, so you really want the biggest bang for your buck. You want students who we hope are going to come to school every day, Monday thru Thursday; they’re going to participate and they’re going to hopefully take in what is being taught. It’s not for our high-end students, not for our gifted or talented students—it’s on recommendation.”

Citing COVID-19 concerns, Dr. Colleen Carroll, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, said the goal was to limit the class sizes to 12-15 students in a classroom. “Fortunately, our sign-up level stayed within that range, so it worked out well,” she said. “We wanted to give as many students (as possible) an opportunity that needed the program and wanted to take part in it, though we were fortunate in not having to turn away families.”

Carroll said they calculated student need based on prior test performance using mid-to-end-of-year assessments, yearly growth in grades and teacher recommendations. From this they created a list, which they used to prioritize which students they invited into the elementary program first. But they did accept sign ups and they didn’t deny any students.

“We don’t want to have students who are extremely struggling because it’s not beneficial for them,” Romano said. “They struggled all year long; they’re going to sit here for a 15-day program that’s accelerated to then just sit there again and possibly struggle and get frustrated.”

In contrast, all eligible students at the middle school level were invited to take the enrichment classes. All of the teachers with one exception are teachers from with the district. “As tough a school year as this was, our teachers are amazing,” Carroll said. “They came back to continue on with our students knowing the importance of making sure the learning continued.”

Do students need extra help?

Both programs at the elementary and middle school level were created with the intention of lessening the effects of summer learning loss, but also COVID learning loss.

Carroll declined to provide assessment data on students from the past year, stating that it misrepresented their actual progress and that the question of “who suffered and who thrived” depended more on a student-by-student basis.

“The numbers that came along with the assessments that we did during the year are numbers based on a year that was unlike any other,” Carroll said. “So, to really put a lot of efficacy into those numbers and say they’re a true indication of how students did would be unfair to students, really.”

Carroll found that students working in a virtual environment both exceled or struggled across every grade. She also found that most students preferred in-person learning over remote.

“That leads us to this great opportunity of summer school because we were able to provide an extended school year opportunity, which even if we didn’t have a pandemic year, we would have loved to do anyway,” she said. “But because of the additional funding we received, we were really able to make that happen in a great way for students.”

Between the elementary classes, educators devote time to socio-emotional exercises, such as talking about their weekend or reviewing a morning message—things Romano said have always been a priority in the district, even before the pandemic.

“In terms of social-emotional learning, I know that’s the big buzz word that’s going around, but it’s something that in Port Chester we’ve always done in some way, shape or form,” Romano added. “Maybe they didn’t see something so nice at home, maybe they didn’t eat that day, something horrible happened—there’s someone in the building to support them.”

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