“Can anyone tell me the definition of mental health?” Paulson Obiniyi asked the class of nearly a dozen seventh- and eighth-grade boys.
The middle-schoolers were learning about physical and mental health as a part of their science class in a summer program in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington through the Youth Leadership Foundation. About 150 students enroll in the program each year. This year, the foundation was able to fully conduct its sessions with students in person after two years of virtual and hybrid lessons. With its doors reopened, the organization brought in students who were trying to catch up academically.
In the District, researchers found that students in third through eighth grade fell behind during the first year of the pandemic by about five to six months in language arts and mathematics, compared with test results from 2018-2019, before the pandemic began. Montgomery County — Maryland’s largest school district, with about 160,000 students — similarly found learning gaps in a study it released in the fall. Eighty-two percent of its second-graders, for example, were meeting literacy readiness measures during the 2018-2019 school year. But at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, about 47.5 percent were meeting those measures. The numbers also declined for math. In Virginia, 2020-2021 results show that 69 percent of students passed their reading exams, 54 percent passed math and 59 percent passed science. Those passing rates were a drop from the 2018-2019 school year, when 78 percent of students passed reading, 82 percent passed math and 81 percent passed science. (The test was not given for the 2019-2020 school year.)
The scores were lower among the school districts’ most vulnerable students.
Billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funds have been allocated for education, and some of these funds have gone to summer learning and enrichment programs hosted by schools and other organizations. National Center for Education Statistics data released this month shows that about 75 percent of public schools said in June they would offer summer programs, with 33 percent reporting they increased their summer learning efforts.
“Over covid, I didn’t learn as much as I usually did. I felt like I could’ve learned more, but it was tough to get through the fact that I couldn’t interact. I had to stay at home,” said Elijah Narce, an eighth-grader participating in the Youth Leadership Foundation’s summer program. “Usually, I learn better when I’m not distracted, but when I’m at home, I get more distracted.”
Elijah struggled the most with retaining his math lessons, but this summer, he said he feels as though he is learning more. During the school year, he attends Dupont Park Adventist School, a private school in Southeast Washington.
Lolu Drummond, an associate program director for the Youth Leadership Foundation, said that during the summer sessions she has noticed the students struggling the most in reading and math.
Instead of reading aloud when they’re called on or answering a math question, students have shut down and not said anything at all, she said. The instructors have reviewed some key math concepts, such as division, because students have said they don’t know how to perform these skills.
“We’ve actually had to take the time out to investigate, like, ‘Hey, what happened today? I noticed you weren’t participating. I’ve noticed during this time you kind of shut down or [were] unresponsive,’ ” Drummond said. “And that’s when it will come out that, like, ‘I’m not very good at reading. I’m too scared to read out loud.’ ”
The Youth Leadership Foundation’s summer program teaches core curriculums — such as math, English, science and social studies — and extracurriculars — such as sports and character development — over five weeks. Most of the students’ families learn about the program through word of mouth, because the foundation has partnerships with schools for after-school programs, too. The program also offers one-on-one mentoring.
“The mentorship is the bread and butter of YLF,” said Janaiha Bennett, the foundation’s executive director. “We realize the importance of the individual — that everyone’s story is different, everyone’s needs are different.”
For Kingston Kershaw, a rising fourth-grader at Tyler Elementary in the District, he said he’s excited to be back in the classroom in person, because he has always loved learning. He felt trapped while virtually attending school, because he was never able to go anywhere. Plus, as much as he loves his brother, the two would sometimes get tired of each other, he said after his one-on-one mentoring session at one of the campuses for the Youth Leadership Foundation’s summer program.
With in-person classes, Kingston thinks he’s “getting pretty better,” he said. At the summer program, he said, he learned more about character — such as what the definition of “unity” is and why it’s important. In his history class, he gained more of an understanding of geography and discovered his favorite continent is Africa. He has also been reading more.
“I actually love doing math games and questioning stuff — that’s been pretty fun for me,” Kingston said.
In Maryland, another summer program is teaching principals and other administrators how to use an individualized approach to aid students experiencing learning gaps. The School Improvement Summer Institute is guiding school leaders on how to use “improvement science,” a framework for solving tough problems related to student achievement, said Segun Eubanks, director of University of Maryland’s Center for Educational Innovation and Improvement, which is coordinating the session.
The goal is to help education leaders develop in three core areas: leadership, equity and improvement. The program also includes panels on being an effective superintendent and how to utilize the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a multibillion-dollar educational plan to improve outcomes in the state’s schools. Education leaders were also invited from D.C., Virginia and New Jersey.
As school systems across Maryland reopened in 2021, they experienced an even tougher year than when they were learning online, Eubanks said. Principals became contact tracers tracking coronavirus cases and had to figure out how to navigate opening and closing classrooms to curb the spread of the virus. This year, administrators are also facing unique staffing shortages. Plus, a third of Maryland superintendents are new for the upcoming school year, according to the center.
“Schools are paying attention to this issue of learning loss, but it’s not the first thing on the list,” Eubanks said. “The first thing on the list is just stabilization.”
Eubanks noted the federal pandemic relief funds that most schools allocated to after-school programs and other enrichment opportunities can help close learning gaps students are experiencing. But most students will spend most of their time in the classroom with teachers. The sessions for administrators, scheduled later this month, will help educators find everyday solutions to help a student who is experiencing learning loss.
“Is it looking differently about the schedule? Is it looking at how we grade? Is it the actual instruction practice of the teachers that need to change?” said Doug Anthony, senior fellow and director of education doctoral programs at U-Md.
Back at the Youth Leadership Foundation, Obiniyi wrapped up his lesson on physical and mental health. It was the group’s last science class with him during the summer.
He tried to keep all the lessons engaging by incorporating hands-on activities and tying them to the students’ lives, he said in an interview. For this lesson on the importance of getting enough sleep, they all had to share at the beginning of the class what they ate and how long they slept the day before.
Obiniyi told them about how sleeping an appropriate amount of time could help their bodies recover and refresh them for the next day. The students took notes about how they could have more healthful diet through small changes, such as swapping out soft drinks for water. He handed out worksheets that directed students to set their own goals for how to sleep and eat better — tips they will need during the upcoming school year.
“You all have taught me a lot over the course of the summer,” Obiniyi said, ending the class.
The program’s director of character and mentorship, Krista Keil, asked each of the students what they had learned from the lessons on physical and mental health. One of the students said that it was important to keep track of their personal health. Another replied that they learned how to set goals.
One student joked as his answer, “Sleep is overrated.”
Another student teased back: “I don’t think that’s what Mr. Paulson is teaching.”
More on the pandemic and schools
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Higher education-coronavirus and monkeypox: Many colleges ease mask rules in third year of coronavirus pandemic | China sends college students to quarantine under zero-COVID | Perspective: The covid kids who spent high schools in their rooms go to college
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