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Episode 30: Learning Acceleration—Extending Opportunities

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

I'm thrilled to be able to present this month's episode of DOE Digest on extending learning opportunities for students. The New Jersey Department of Education recently released guidance on learning acceleration. In that guidance, there are principles for learning acceleration and principle number two is ensuring equitable access to grade- level content and high-quality resources. As part of that the New Jersey Department of Education believes that students need extended learning opportunities so that local education agencies can create access to and opportunities for well-rounded education. In this episode, I'm going to be talking to two district leaders about what they've been doing in their context to ensure that equitable access for all through extended learning opportunities.

I also wanted to share that we at the Department are thinking about this podcast and what we can do to make it better, and what the things are that you like about it. As such, I would like to ask you to leave a rating and a review on whatever podcast app you use to listen to us so that we can see your feedback and think about how to make this show the best it can be. Thank you so much and enjoy this interview.


Ambrose: My name is Ambrose Duckett, Superintendent of East Hampton Township school district located in East Hampton, New Jersey, Burlington County. And I'm also a graduate level adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Arlene: My name is Arlene Rogo. I'm principal of Neptune Middle School in Monmouth County. I'm also President-elect of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA).

Ken: I want to just start off by asking if you could explain the importance of extending learning opportunities for students. Why do you think that's important generally, not necessarily specific to your program, but generally? And why should folks be thinking about that during this time as we are looking forward to the 2021-2022 school year yeah? And why don't we start with Arlene?

Arlene: I think it's so nice that you said looking forward to the 21-22 school year, because we're so focused on what has happened in the past. And that is very important because we have to set that foundation now going forward. But we are looking forward to a new start, opening...having all of our students in school, in person. My district was lucky enough to go back in the fall, and then we resumed full time in the spring. And we need to look at how our students have adjusted as a result of being remote, in person, half and half, or back full time in the spring. So I think it's important every year that we don't have, what might be referred to as learning loss, over the summer. But especially, right now, we need to be looking at everything we can possibly do for our students to make up any lost time and get us back on track for September. So I think it's important all the time, but especially right now.

Ken: Ambrose, how about you? What’s your take on the importance of extending learning opportunities for students and why that's so essential? Why that's something that you focused on in your career?

Ambrose: Sure. I firmly believe that the pandemic just highlighted some areas in the educational system, primarily access. So what was revealed during the pandemic was that we had a good amount of our students who were going to do well in person but were going to struggle with remote learning, primarily because I'm at home, it's not "pick up your pencil and get started." You have parents who are working or not there, who are monitoring and the ones who are making sure that the work is getting done. So what we found, and this is looking at our data, was that a good segment of our students just were not accessing remote learning, remote instructions.

So what we wanted to do was to level the playing field, and present new opportunities. And new opportunities means access. And that's like providing busing for after school programs and also for our summer program. Summer learning, which we're going to start just next week. Making sure that all of our students have access, not just ones whose parents have transportation, or parents who are not working. So access is critical. And opportunities for all students is critical.

Some students, we know, are going to be naturally engaged. But we know a good, about 30 to 35 percent of our students, are going to probably be a year and a half behind. As Arlene stated, Friday—and I believe it was March 13—we were in school and Monday we were not. And we struggled with 30 percent of our population for the 15 school months of getting them engaged.

So providing robust opportunities this summer will help level the playing field. But also, extending that into the school year, after school, before school, and meeting individual, specific needs of our students.

Ken: I can imagine a listener to this podcast hearing you talk about the importance of extended learning opportunities for students, and what this can mean for them. And then kind of thinking, "yes." And it's been a really difficult year for both teachers and students, as you both mentioned. And will folks want to be coming into the school? Will students want to participate? Will teachers want to participate? As people process that, how are you building excitement? What are the ways that educators that are listening in this podcast can build excitement around extended learning opportunities in their school community? And why don't we start with Ambrose?

Ambrose:Our goal was to make it campy, a thematic feel to the summer program. So it's not like you're going to summer school, it's like you're going to camp where you're going to have academics  interwoven into the day. Also, we want to make sure that it's interactive, that children get a chance to do some hands-on learning, which they were not able to do much during the pandemic. And I believe a big choice—and this is pre-pandemic, post-pandemic, during pandemic—is choice.

So, our program this summer, while it's four hours a day, four days a week, we'll have some opportunities for students to choose how they learn and who they learn with. And we believe that we make it optional, but strongly suggested, especially for those 30 to 35 percent that we were talking about. And also making sure that the teachers that we hire for the program wanted to work in the program, not necessarily because they needed a check over the summer, but they were excited about working with students, excited about this opportunity to help students who naturally would not be participating in a summer program.

And finally a mixed grouping. So not all of our students that are going to be in during the summer are going to be struggling students. They're going to be students who just need access and they can help support our efforts. In this way, it takes away the stigma that because you did poorly in school, you're coming to the summer program. It could just be an access issue, more an issue where the parents just were not able to take advantage of remote learning as other families were.

So we wanted to put a lighter feel to this—thematic, campy feel—so that students would want to come to our summer program. And we have, I think, 85 percent of the elementary students we  made this available to took advantage of it. Slightly lower in middle school, where we're a little bit under 50 percent of the students we made this available to in middle school who took advantage of it. So what we've done for those 50 who are not coming, we've done an online component to help them out.

Ken: Excellent. Arlene, how about you? What's your view on this idea of building excitement around extended learning opportunities for the entire school community? And really getting folks engaged and ready to participate in these learning opportunities?

Arlene: Well, speaking from the middle school perspective, we had about 70 percent of our students back full time by the end of the school year. Which was wonderful to have kids back in the building, walking the halls, and everything else like that.

So we have two different programs that we're running. One is a summer accelerated program that's open to all of our current sixth, seventh and eighth graders. So even our eighth graders that are going to be going to the high school next year could participate.

And our theme is STEM {Science, Technology, Engineering, Math}. So we wanted to get them excited. The teachers who are going to be teaching—it's in person—came up with "thinking globally, acting locally." And they're going to be—we are right near the beach—so they're going to be doing a water theme. The importance with history, science, looking at different ways of sustaining life as far as landscaping and planting and food acquisition, and things like that. Totally optional for any of our students. We've had a pretty good response for that. And that will be starting next week.

And then we have another program that we've extended since the beginning of the school year called our Twilight Program. But now what we're doing is we're calling it for the Summer Daylight/Twilight. It is totally online. Students who did not do well academically were strongly encouraged to take advantage of the program. And other students who, you know, if the parents wanted them to accelerate a little bit, could also sign up for the program as well. I have 10 teachers who, some are working in the morning shift and the others are working the night shift. So it could either be from eight to ten, or ten to twelve, or it could be from six to eight in the evening, The students log on. It's individualized as far as the program is concerned. And they're working on skills at their level so that we're trying to close that gap somewhat and allow others to accelerate.

We had the Twilight Program during the course of the school year, found it to be very, very beneficial. We had originally budgeted for an after-school program, in person. Obviously with the pandemic, we weren't able to offer that. So we decided to do it at night instead. We had a lot of children participate, which was great.

We had a lot of parents participate, and that, I think, was the one of the best parts, because, you know, parents are going to work every day. They couldn't necessarily be there with their students during the day, trying to get them to log on, and, you know, follow programming and things like that. So this way, at night, you know, a parent comes home from work, they can log on with their child and kind of be able to get the explanation and the lesson at the same time. You know, we had a lot of parents who said, "you know, I don't remember sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, math especially, so this was great." They could get the explanation from the teacher and also work with their child, which I think is so important because it allowed the parents also to kind of keep tabs on what was going on academically as well. So we're continuing that program. You know,  both of them will be starting next week.

And the Twilight Program is something that we'd like to continue on in the fall, because it also gives the opportunity for students not to have to make the choice between an after school club, or an after school sport, or the academic. You know, they can participate after school. They can do what they want to do, because we do have a lot of club offerings. But then at night, they have the opportunity then to work on the academics.

Ken: In both examples there's just so much thought that has gone into the preparation and how you can ensure that all the students participating are able to engage. And, again, you're building that excitement because you're allowing them to do it on their time in ways that are engaging for them. So that's excellent. Thank you so much for sharing all that.

Next, I wanted to ask about the ways in which you strategically think about the students and staff you will engage for extended learning opportunities. So whether it's, you know, the Twilight program during the year or the summer learning opportunities that you're providing. How are you strategically thinking about the ways that you're including students? Which students you're including? And then really utilizing the staff that you're able to collaborate with and their strengths as well? So why don't we start with Arlene on that one.

Arlene: Well, one of the things that we also took into consideration, and I omitted this in in my last statements, we also have a program for our ESL {English as a second language} youngsters, because we have a very, very large group, or population rather, of ESL youngsters. And we want to make sure we're addressing those needs as well. So that's also part of the program. And they're going to be doing some things with the STEM program as well, because that's going to be in person.

You know, one of the things that was mentioned earlier was, you know, access to technology and the equity issue, which is very, very important. And we want to make sure that we are addressing the needs of all of our students. Any of our opportunities that we're having, we try to reach out to as many of our families as possible.

We also have a staff member who is working as an attendance liaison, and she spent a lot of time going out to families and talking to parents about what offerings that we had, and how it would benefit their child or children to have them participate. We had the ability to offer up to any of our families who needed technology signing out a Chromebook for the summer.

So, you know, even in terms of selection of staff, and I was very, very lucky in that my staff really wanted to do these programs and to be there over the summer, which I think is so important, because if your teachers aren't excited about the program, how do you expect your kids to be excited about it? And I had a lot of the teachers who were reaching out to families as well to say "hey, this would be great if your child participated in this program." So also, setting up more of that community involvement to try to get as many of our kids as possible participating in programs. And I'd have to say, I think at this point we probably have close to 50 percent of our student population participating in some program over the summer.

Ken: Awesome. It's really great to hear about that type of participation, the way that you're strategically planning that out. How about you Ambrose?

Ambrose: Sure. Ours began before the pandemic hit. We began by surveying parents and our staff about the needs of the district. And access was a big need. In East Hampton Township school district we're very small. We have a segment of our population that has limited access. So the conversation about extended learning started well before the pandemic hit. And as I mentioned before, the pandemic just highlighted some areas of deficiency for us.

So we began by engaging our staff and we do something called "Community of Learners." And that's staff teaching staff. And what came out of our Community of Learners was a team liaison group of all stakeholders from the district. And one big push from our staff was, "we need to provide more support for extended learning for our students." And we just had to, on an admin. end,  work out what that's going to look like.

So I think a big component of why I believe this is going to be hugely successful is that this was a grassroots push from our teaching staff to provide more opportunities for our students, and not just the traditional opportunities that we provide: teachers staying in during recess, or teacher staying after school. But thinking outside the box to help those who would not be able to take advantage of those opportunities. Some kids need to run around at recess, and it's better for them to stay after school. So we are, for the first time, gonna have a late bus in our school district that will enable our students to take advantage of the homework helpers, or just extra support. Whereas before, only the kids whose parents could pick them up at 4:00 or 4:30 were able to take advantage of that.

So getting staff to buy into this was not hard because they were the ones who pushed for this. And once they pushed, we started having conversations on the admin level. And then we started having conversations with our community that, you know, they see our test scores, they see how we perform, some grade levels, some areas better than others, but what they don't often see is the work behind the scores. So we started having public meetings, and having these discussions on the board level, and giving parents an opportunity to give us some feedback through our PTA {Parent Teacher Association}, and also through our Board of Education meetings. And what we also did is we started rolling out bi-weekly bulletins, which provided information for parents on how we were going to meet the needs of their children, our students.

So communication, listening to our staff, as I said the survey, and then getting feedback from our staff on what the program needs to look like. Admin will get credit for putting it together, but it should be the staff who gets most of the credit because they were the ones who brought this forward, and they're the ones who are building the program and volunteered to participate.

Of course they're going to get paid, but we had—before we posted the positions, and we have a total of 15 total summer positions—we had 20 applications before we even posted, which is amazing. And we had to make some tough decisions, but we made decisions which are in the best interest of our students. So the credit goes to the staff there about how we're engaging for extended learning. And I just don't want that to be missed here. Communication with the community, but also listening to the staff, because they know truly um what our students need.

Ken: I think that's such an important point for people to think about as they're thinking about access for all students to these types of learning opportunities is really building programs as a community, and looking at things like distributed leadership for these types of programs and building these types of environments. And I think that that is a point that will be really important for folks to take away from this podcast. So thank you for sharing.

So next question I wanted to ask is "what would you say to educators thinking about extending learning opportunities in their own context." So this could be maybe a teacher who's currently working in a summer school or about to start summer school with students, or maybe an administrator who's thinking about organizing these types of opportunities in their own districts. So what advice do you have around this around this topic for them? And why don't we start with Arlene?

Arlene: I think one of the things that I would say is that what's happened this past year and a half has really made a lot of people think outside the box. That what we always thought about as being what education should look like, and regardless whether you're a first year teacher or you've been in the business for 40 years, this was something that no one had ever experienced. And we I think it proved the fact that we don't have to stick to business as usual and the way things have always been. I think we do have students who were very successful with remote, and we don't necessarily have to say, "okay, remote is a hundred percent gone." But I think maybe looking at the school hours differently, we don't necessarily have to follow that, you know, eight to five, eight to four, mentality, or eight to three, whatever. I think we can look at offering programs at different times just like what we're doing as far as the twilight at night.

I think that some students may respond better to even a morning program, depending upon what your school hours are. I think it's very important what was said about bringing parents in the mix as well, because we could get some ideas as far as what would benefit the families of our students. And that's something that we can also be looking at. I know it's not a definitive answer, but I think making everybody sit down around the table, and no idea is basically off the table so to speak. I think we just have to look at different alternatives and look at some of the things that that have worked this year and continue.

Ken: Great. Ambrose?

Ambrose: One thing I would suggest is make it fit your different district-specific needs. And we had actually a third year teacher who helped build most of the program. So for administrators, you know, I would suggest to open yourselves up to hearing from the staff members who may not have been in the district a long time, but may bring some outside ideas about how you can grow, not your brand, and also how you can best support students.

I believe as administrators, and the further we get away from the classroom and I'm several positions removed [as] superintendent— I think we have to go back to those practitioners who are meeting with students regularly, or communicating with parents regularly, to get ideas on how we can improve on our practices.

And we've talked a lot about remediation and supporting students, but one of the things that came out of all of these meetings— and this came from a board member and a parent— was what about the students who may be proficient, who may be doing well, what are we gonna do for extended opportunities for those students? And I think Arlene mentioned that they have a STEM component to their summer program. And while we're not going to do that this summer, we're going to start a robotics club after school for our students in this upcoming school year. We're just working out the details.

We do have a K to 8 STEM program, but we believe that this came from our parents and a board member and staff, that we need to create opportunities on the other end as well, for our students. You know, a lot of districts get caught up in dealing with the families that are in need, and the families that don't speak out much, and we have to make sure that we're open  to service and to work with all of our students,  whether they're performing high or not. And I don't want that to get lost here. That we are thinking about those families as well.

So how do we, I guess, suggest to other educators? Please, if you're a staff member or teacher, don't be nervous. Or please share with your administration some of the suggestions that you have. And administrators, be open to thinking about education and extended learning different from what it looked like when we were actually practitioners in the classroom. So being open to that dialogue and being willing to clear it away for opportunities for all students.

Arlene: You know, and just to piggyback on that because you made such a great point, we also don't have to reinvent the wheel. You know, hearing what other districts are doing, very often it sparks something to, "wait, a minute. That's a great idea. How could we modify that to meet the needs of our kids and in our district?" And, you know, I am sure there is so many phenomenal things that went on this past year and a half or so in other districts in New Jersey, and just, you know, listening and hearing about what other people have done, you know, I also think is a wonderful way of coming up with other alternatives and new ideas that are maybe new to your district, but not someplace else.


Ken: Thank you so much for checking out this month's episode. Before we end, I would like to thank you, our listeners, for listening. I'd like to thank the Road Forward team at the New Jersey Department of Education. I'd like to thank Elizabeth Thomas who creates the transcripts for this episode, as well as this episode's guests. I'd also like to invite you to our #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat on July 20th at 8:30 pm, where we'll be talking about extended learning in your context at your school or district or wherever you find yourself. Thank you so much.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

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