May 5, 2022
Last week, The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading hosted an event titled Taking Stock and Looking Forward: Principals on K-3 Learning. The discussion was moderated by Laura Bornfreund, a senior fellow at New America (a co-sponsor of the webinar), and brought together school leaders from across the nation. Panelists included principals Julie Bloss of Grover Elementary Childcare Center in rural Oklahoma; Seth Daub of the Academic Center for Excellence in Orange County, Florida; Clariza Dominicci of Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering School in Chicago, Illinois; Ernest Sessoms, Jr., of Paul L. Dunbar Elementary in Atlanta, Georgia; and Jaclyn Brown Wright of Brewbaker Primary School in Montgomery, Alabama; as well as Andrea Pearson, Vice President of the Educare Network.
During this inspiring webinar, school leaders reflected on the different challenges, wins, and growth opportunities that the 2021-2022 school year presented. One overarching theme was the importance of resilience. Dominicci compared this school year to the Chicago weather, “If you don’t like the weather, stick around for 24 hours. This rapid weather change is much like the experience this year for educators and school leaders. Things change so rapidly.”
Panelists explained that initially their focus was on student learning recovery, but quickly their focus broadened beyond math and reading. They echoed what many other educators and parents have reported: this school year students are “missing skills.” Schools are finding that they need to provide opportunities for building social skills such as taking turns, dealing with conflict, and voicing frustrations, but also life skills such as tying shoes and cutting along a dotted line with scissors.
School leaders also spotlighted other areas including lower enrollment and staffing challenges, family engagement and positive school climate strategies, balancing social-emotional development with rigorous academic content, and learning recovery strategies.
Panelists discussed creative solutions such as prioritizing funds towards additional staffing, particularly counselors and intervention educators, increasing access to technology, using learning through play strategies, and supporting both educators and students through a supportive and nurturing “trauma-sensitive” climate.
Brown Wright highlighted a program her school uses called “Get In Rhythm.” This practice ensures that students and educators have the space to recognize how they may be feeling, even when they cannot fully verbalize their feelings. “All of these little ones come into class and although they cannot verbalize that they are feeling hurt, or energized or anxious, all students are able to pick an emoji to gauge how they are feeling.” Students begin each day with a short video that helps them get centered and settled, while also creating the space for them to have conversations early in the morning, to ensure that their day doesn’t continue in a bad way if they are feeling “off or down.”
Daub noted the use of a similar strategy at his school. Every morning children check in with their teachers and classmates. Daub explained that this dedicated time every morning “allows space for students to voice their concerns” and even when students are not verbal they will often write down how they are feeling. Based on these conversations and observations from educators, students are able to meet with counselors and social workers at the school to get the emotional and behavioral support that they need. As Pearson voiced, social-emotional learning is often misunderstood, but this practice is simply developing the skills that children need to be able to exist in society so that students are able to “engage with others so that we can truly focus on academics.”
But, teachers need support as well. In order to combat staff shortages and teacher burnout, panelists reiterated the importance of treating teachers as human beings first and foremost. To keep teachers' personal time sacred, Brown Wright discussed using Zoom to hold meetings instead of asking them to stay after school and strategically using Google Docs and emails to avoid unnecessary meetings. Bloss also highlighted the importance of having warm and inviting spaces for educators. These spaces, including the teacher workroom and restroom, only needed a little paint and decoration, but these renovations meant so much to the staff who sometimes just needed a bright, uplifting, and quiet space to sit after a long day.
Panelists also stressed that the increased stream of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds has allowed schools to meet the academic needs of their students in creative and innovative ways that have previously not been possible due to staffing and fiscal constraints. Bloss was able to hire more staff members (a multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) counselor and a school counselor) which has had a huge positive impact on both students and staff after years of continued budget cuts in her small rural district. Sessoms explained that ESSER funds allowed his school to launch an in-person after-school program called Target Time After School. Target Time gives students more opportunities to close learning gaps that may have been exasperated by the pandemic.
Sessoms also stressed the importance of using increased funds to purchase more tech for students during this afterschool program. He went on to explain that “there is such an advantage to having a one-to-one device per student. As you know with devices, sometimes the technology fails, and so we need to have backup devices, we need to have other Chromebooks or loaners. By purchasing more technology, when something is going on with a student’s computer, the instruction doesn't need to stop. We already have a turnaround process for repairs or loaners available right in our school.”
Despite the creative ways in which ESSER funds were used across the nations, one message was clear and consistent among all panelists: increased staffing was a key use of recovery dollars despite the different populations served. Panelists also shared three things that they need from state and local policymakers: 1. Officials who care about their kids as much as they do, 2. The inclusion of more teacher voices when making policy decisions, and 3. Continued funding to sustain promising initiatives that have had such a positive impact on students and educators. Keeping an open line of communication between educators, school leaders, and policymakers is integral because as Brown Wright explained, “Happy schools matter.”
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