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Anchorage schools plan summer programs to counter growing learning gap

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By fall, Anchorage students will have spent about six months away from in-person classes, and the Anchorage School District expects that “summer slide" — a natural slip backward in learning — will be worse than usual.

It is rolling out expanded, optional summer learning programs that students can work on at home as it seeks to mitigate the growing learning gap.

In a district-wide email sent this month, Superintendent Deena Bishop outlined what the school district will be offering. Summer learning options will vary by grade: for high school, a four-week extension of the current quarter and online summer credit course options; online reading and math tutorials for middle school students; and both online options and paper packets of learning materials for elementary students.

Initially, the district rolled out its online content for middle and elementary school students as only supplementary.

But as the school closures were extended, it became clear that providing “more long-term, rigorous, structured options” would be necessary, said Mark Stock, the district’s deputy superintendent.

Families will get more information about summer programs in the coming weeks, Stock said.

School buildings are closed for the rest of the academic year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the school district moved its more than 45,000 students to online learning. It is facing multiple hurdles, like ensuring students have access to technology and keeping them engaged at home.

Login and assignment submission data from the first three weeks of online classes presented at an Anchorage School Board meeting showed a drop in engagement in the third week — more than 62% of high school seniors did not log in.

“We know by these data that a significant input will need to be made into summer learning,” Bishop said while presenting the engagement data at a joint meeting of the Alaska Legislature’s House and Senate education committees last month.

The district has no way to predict how much learning loss is occurring, said Stock. Many students’ families are facing job loss or pandemic-related difficulties and are struggling with at-home learning, he said.

The district’s summer programs will be remote. But Bishop said during an April 29 community briefing that the district also will hold in August a “jump-start program for students most in need to catch back up.”

That program is still in the planning phase, spokesman Alan Brown said. It would ideally be held in-person, with small groups and social distancing protocols. But whether it will be in-person or remote depends on the COVID-19 mandates from the state and city, he said.

In high school, students who have a failing grade in their final quarter of online classes will get an extra four weeks to raise their grade and finish, Bishop said in the district-wide email. High school students can also make up courses they failed previously or take for-credit courses early for the next year.

Middle school students will be able to use a program called Apex Tutorial, which provides lessons in English and math. Families who choose to use it will receive weekly support from a district teacher, Bishop said.

Elementary students will also have access to online learning programs, and the district will make paper learning packets available to all families, Stock said.

Not all families will be able to use the online summer programs, said Sand Lake Elementary principal Linson Thompson.

“It’s for families, one, that can spend the time doing that, two, have the access and are wanting a little more,” Thompson said.

Access to computers and Wi-Fi has been one of the biggest issues for families in his school, Thompson said. As of Monday, the district had distributed 9,794 Chromebook laptops and 1,163 Wi-Fi hotspots to students, according to Lisa Miller, district spokeswoman. But even with access, some kids aren’t engaged.

Thompson said that his students’ learning “is all over the board right now.”

“Without having them face-to-face, we don’t know exactly where they’re at,” he said.

The Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit research organization that runs Alaska’s MAP Growth tests, which evaluate students’ learning, released an updated version of a study this month that analyzed learning patterns from five million students. Its projections show that the slide in learning from COVID-19 school closures will vary by school and by student.

The learners who were already furthest behind are likely to suffer the most learning loss. In general, students are projected to return with only about 63% to 68% of the learning they would have gained in reading during a regular school year. In math, they’ll return with just 37% to 50% of normal learning, the NWEA projects.

The summer learning options, while helpful, won’t be sufficient, Stock said. Programs are optional and many students who need them won’t use them. The district will have its hands full in the fall as it assesses what that gap really is, Stock said.

“It means the district bears a responsibility to try to catch kids up,” Stock said.

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