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Districts offer programs before, after school hoping to close academic gaps

Baldwin schools Superintendent Shari Camhi talks about the

Baldwin schools Superintendent Shari Camhi talks about the district’s approach to educating children during the pandemic and about its partnership with Molloy College. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas; Barry Sloan

While school administrators said the delivery of education on Long Island has improved since schools reopened from shutdowns to a mix of remote and in-person classes in September, they are still concerned that some students might be falling behind.

National studies have shown that the coronavirus health crisis has set learning back for all students. To close the gap, some districts are offering free enrichment programs before and after school and using virtual opportunities to enhance learning.

Alan Singer, a professor at Hofstra University in Garden City, said he recently noticed his school's student teachers "grappling with keeping kids engaged."

"What all kids need is that interaction with teachers, and they need that interaction with classmates — and that interaction is very difficult to generate online," said Singer, who supervises Hofstra's student teachers and was observing them in classrooms via Zoom videoconferencing.

According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., assessment data from the fall showed that students, on average, started school about three months behind in mathematics, while the picture for reading was more positive, with students starting school 1 1/2 months behind historical averages.

On Long Island, several school districts have turned to online resources and virtual enrichment programs to keep students engaged.

  • In Freeport, the district recently launched two virtual opportunities: a before- and after-school program specifically for English Language Learners, and small-group sessions with teachers twice a week targeting reading and math skills.
  • In Commack, school officials partnered with universities to help create virtual lab experiences for students and held interactive virtual field trips to museums, zoos and historical sites.
  • In Baldwin, the children’s book "Rosie Revere, Engineer," which teaches elementary students a lesson about persistence and hope, is one of the tools used by volunteer educators in a free virtual after-school program that emphasizes making connections and creating hope.

Baldwin partners with Molloy

Baldwin, which has about 4,500 students, partners with Molloy College in Rockville Centre. Molloy graduate students studying to become teachers lead the small-group program.

The program's coordinator, Audra Cerruto, associate dean and director of the graduate education program at Molloy, said that while she is "very concerned about regression and the lack of progression" of students' academic skills, "social and emotional learning has to be the priority right now."

"If they don't feel safe and don't feel connected to others, and they don't have a sense of hope, they cannot learn — and they need to be ready to learn," Cerruto said.

The program, which is free and used to be in-person on weekends, runs throughout the year and is divided into four parts at four weeks each part. More than 70 students signed up this fall.

The program has pivoted to focus on social and emotional learning, including lessons on creating hope and making meaningful connections while also incorporating math and reading skills. Sessions start with a main group activity, and then the graduate students break into smaller groups to work with children. They use educational games and activities.

Parent Andrea Harrison said the program gives her two children — ages 5 and 8, and full-remote learners — a chance to socialize with other students.

"They are learning, but it is in a fun kind of way, so they don’t realize that they are learning," she said.

Baldwin Superintendent Shari Camhi said the program fits with the district's curriculum and philosophy.

"This opportunity with Molloy is another opportunity for kids to collaborate with one another, " she said. "Would it be better in person? One hundred percent … What I am hoping for is once this is over, we can have the same program in-person."

The district has noted some regression among math skills, Camhi said, but children have made incredible gains in areas that are not measured, such as technology skills.

Math, reading program launched online

In Freeport, about half the district's 7,000 students are learning remotely, as the school system offers five days of instruction for elementary children and a hybrid model for older students. Educators in the fall noted a regression in math and reading skills — particularly at the elementary level — and have taken steps to address them, Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said.

Educators noted a 15% decline in the percentage of students making expected grade-level growth in reading and math during the fall. About 17% of K-6 students regressed at least one reading level, he said, especially second-graders.

"That’s a bit telling and certainly not coming as a surprise to us," Kuncham said. "It is important for all of us to realize this and help students to recover from the COVID slide."

The Nassau County district had run an after-school program in previous years that targeted math and reading skills. In recent weeks, the district launched that program online for elementary students, who connect via Google Meet with teachers twice a week in small groups.

The district also launched a virtual program for English Language Learners that runs before and after school, and built an online resource offering on-demand lessons for students in reading and math, Kuncham said. It held multiple virtual summer school programs for K-12 students.

Singer, professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of Hofstra's social studies education program, said he favors keeping students in school as much as possible, especially younger children. Programs such as these offer small-group experiences that are essential, he said. However, he added, "The problem is how can young kids sustain being online all day?"

No declines in Commack

The Commack district has not seen declines at the elementary level, officials there said. Testing results in grades 1 to 3 showed students have continued to make progress in reading and math. Students are further along in math and reading this year than last, with fewer children at risk of falling behind, according to a recent presentation to the district's board of education.

The Suffolk County district partnered with universities, including Stanford, SUNY Brockport and the New York Institute of Technology to work with students in different subject areas, as well as to create virtual lab experiences in math and science. Science research students at the high school partnered with Stanford scientists at the Seung Kim Laboratory via Zoom to study genetics of a certain species of fruit fly.

There also have been interactive virtual field trips to museums, zoos, historical sites, author zooms and more, at every grade level.

"There are so many ways we seek to keep our students involved, not only academically, but socially as well," said Donald James, superintendent of Commack schools.

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