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Ryan Connelly Holmes
Ryan Connelly Holmes
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It's been more than a year since most American schoolchildren returned to the classroom full-time. Now, school districts are working to recover learning lost while kids were at home during the pandemic. Researchers say students in high-poverty areas lost the most. Geoff Bennett reports on a school in Baltimore where mental health and small group learning are at the center of its approach.
It's been more than a year since most American schoolchildren return to classrooms full time. Now school districts are working to recover learning that was lost while kids were at home during the pandemic.
Researchers say students in low-income neighborhoods lost the most. I have recently visited a school in Baltimore that's found innovative ways to help students catch up.
Maya Alston, Teacher:
Are we being respectful?
Are we ready to listen?
A typical morning for fourth graders at Holabird Academy in Southeast Baltimore.
Quiet hands only.
After announcements, teacher Maya Alston leads students through a 15-minute mental health check-in.
If their minds are not ready to learn, the instruction is a lot harder for us, but also for them.
This daily ritual started before the pandemic, but it's taken on new importance after students returned to the classroom, one way Baltimore City Public Schools is helping students catch up on unfinished learning from the pandemic.
Because they left off at a younger grade, it's like they're picking up where they left off, even with us trying our best to catch them up.
Not just academically, but socially and emotionally.
How have the morning check-ins affected your students?
I think they sometimes struggle even just with simple communication skills, as far as like talking to each other during recess, instead of being on their phones, because they're so used to having that technology in front of them.
Starting the day with a mind-set of how are you or a check-in allows them to know that we care about them beyond their instruction.
Holabird Academy is a neighborhood pre-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school, where 100 percent of students are on free or reduced cost lunch.
Stephanie Pappas, Principal, Holabird Academy:
We did experience that students had trouble or challenges in dealing with some of those social and emotional skills.
Principal Stephanie Pappas says prioritizing mental health is crucial.
We want to be intentional about building those capacities in students, including self-awareness and responsible decision-making and just ensuring that our students are able to demonstrate empathy for one another in an authentic way.
Holabird has expanded its emphasis on mental health through community partnerships and additional training for teachers using an infusion of state and federal pandemic funding.
Baltimore City Public Schools received more than $689 million from the federal government to address the impact of COVID-19.
Joan Dabrowski, Chief Academic Officer, Baltimore City Public Schools:
We have invested quite a bit in our tutoring efforts, in our extended learning opportunities.
Joan Dabrowski, is chief academic officer for Baltimore City Public Schools. She coordinates programming for 75,000 students across more than 150 schools.
BCPS, like most public school districts, experienced extended virtual instruction. How has the pandemic affected students here?
We know that students had limited opportunities in virtual learning, and that we are now seeing, as we have come back to in-person, that we have work to do to bring those students back on track and to accelerate their learning, so that we can ensure that they are ready to do well at their grade level and beyond.
Staffing is a key part of Holabird's strategy. Additional funding enabled Holabird to add 15 positions for teachers and aides. That allowed the school to put two teachers in most classrooms and offer classes like this on environmental sustainability.
You can see how that worm is digesting the organic material.
Today's lesson, how earthworms support ecosystems. The school district also partners with local groups that offer one-on-one tutoring during the school day for students identified as needing additional instruction.
Holabird itself has added small group time for all students.
One of those small group interventions is called Just Words, which helps students with reading fundamentals.
Melissa Morella, Teacher:
It's definitely been an uphill battle. A lot of them missed almost half of first grade. And those are the years that they learn and that they really solidify those foundational reading skills.
Just Words instructor and fourth grade teacher Melissa Morella.
They don't really get any direct instruction anymore in reading and their general education classes. And so a small group is a time where the kids who need that extra practice really can get the direct instruction with the teacher, with me.
Morella also teaches English for speakers of other languages. About half the students at Holabird are English language learners.
When these kids were at home during virtual learning, most of them didn't have any exposure to English at all. Their families all speak Spanish.
A lot of our English language learners, especially those who are newer to the country, really kind of had to relearn English, if they'd already knew it, or kind of they had to take those extra steps once they got back to school to really solidify their English skills.
What's your favorite subject?
These fourth graders are among those benefiting from being back in the classroom.
What's the best thing about school?
Karla Argueta Rivera, Student:
Is that I like to be in the school, is the best, because we can play with friends, and we can find more friends in school.
Lavon Cypress, Student:
It makes me happy to see my friends again and to, like, see people doing better.
Are there certain areas where you feel like you have to do more work to catch up? Maybe it's math? Maybe it's reading?
Kayden Miller-Player, Student:
I feel like I have to do more work inside of math to catch up.
Is it because of the pandemic and being at home for a year-and-a-half, two years?
How has this small reading group helped you?
JAMIE QUINTERO-GOMEZ, Student:
Because, like, I was having a tough time, like, reading words. And when I go to Just Words, it helped me sound out the words, so I would remember them. And I learned new words that I didn't how to read it.
Parents like Joane Espinoza can see the difference a personalized learning plan makes for students like her son, Jason (ph).
Joane Espinoza, Parent:
He was in kindergarten when the pandemic started. And that's when they started to learn how to write, make words. He was struggling a lot. But now, being in school, I can see the progress. I can see him thriving.
Helping students thrive is no small task for a school district that was already underperforming in 2020 and took a step back during the pandemic.
We know that, even prior to the pandemic, our students had important learning needs. And, yes, the pandemic intensified those things.
Our energy is forward-thinking. Our energy is around using our data to inform that instruction in service of getting our students back on track and getting our students on grade level.
The fourth graders and Ms. Alston and Ms. Morella's classes say they notice and appreciate the help they're getting.
Coming into fourth grade, I was nervous because I didn't know if it was going to be new people and new teachers. And I'm — now I'm happy to see my new teachers helping us.
And, tomorrow, we will take a look at the national implications of learning loss connected to the pandemic and how schools across the country can best help their students.
That's Saturday on "PBS News Weekend."
Watch the Full Episode
Geoff Bennett serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. He also serves as an NBC News and MSNBC political contributor.
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