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Will acceleration days close the learning gap?


By Cynthia Gibson | OW Contributor

Chris Warren, eighth-grade language teacher, immediately noticed the academic regression in his middle school students at Young Oak Kim Academy after almost 18 months of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On writing assignments, his students would confuse the lower-case letter “b” with the lower case letter “d.”

“They were having difficulty because the way they were writing the letters wasn’t smooth,” Warren said.  “They would begin writing the letter from the bottom, not the top. By the eighth grade they should know that already.”

Across America, the loss in learning for students K – 12 during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reverberate a year after in-person classes resumed in August 2021. Many students are two or more grade levels below their actual grade level this fall than before the pandemic began, according to the Curriculum Associates’ report “Understanding Student Learning,” which analyzed 3 million students’ fall 2021 i-Ready scores against averages from 2017-19.

The report found that the pandemic has been especially detrimental for four groups: students beginning conceptual math in early middle school; students learning to read; students in predominantly Black and Latino schools; and students in lower-income zip codes.

Schools with the highest proportions of Black students have experienced the starkest learning gaps in third grade, faring slightly better with reading over math.

As compared to pre-pandemic rates, 17% more students in predominantly Black schools are now two or more grade levels behind. The majority of students in predominantly Black schools, 59%, test below grade level in math.

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s instructional calendar for the 2022-2023 school year includes four additional days for optional targeted accelerated instructional opportunities, spread out throughout the year on four Wednesdays – Oct.19, Dec. 7, March 15, 2023 and April 19, 2023.

LAUSD said the additional days will provide real-time support for students and assistance to catch up and meet grade-level standards or earn a C or better in their courses or to get ahead.

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the additional days “will be designed to provide a deep level of supplemental academic support for our students who need it the most—students who have lost the most ground, students in foster care, students with English language limitations or one or more disabilities. We must have the courage and compassion to provide extended quality instruction time for these students and professional development for our teachers.”

For LAUSD employees, the school calendar also includes three days of professional development for C-basis certificated and classified staff to support coherence of practices and maximize their success in the classroom.

LAUSD entered a thorough planning and design phase before implementing the accelerated learning days and employee professional development days. The planning will include determining which students will receive targeted accelerated learning time and creating a detailed structure of the program that will concentrate on core learning and strong interventions for students who most need support.

“We have kids in crisis today — in a deeper level of crisis, beyond the crisis that they were facing prior to the pandemic,” Carvalho said. “Simply returning them to the conditions that they faced pre-pandemic is not going to be enough if we are to close the achievement gap. There’s an urgency in this country the likes of which I’ve never seen in the 30-plus years I worked as an educator.”

The Education Workers United, SEIU Local 99 supports LAUSD’s plan for the additional, optional school days.  The union represents tens of thousands of classified workers in L.A. Unified, including special education assistants, bus drivers, food service workers and custodians.

“As education workers, we support the acceleration days and all efforts to help our students succeed,” a statement from SEIU Local 99 said. “Our union participated in conversations with LAUSD about this change in the instructional calendar and we believe the additional days are a benefit for both students and staff. Students will be able to get the extra help they need and SEIU Local 99 members will have the option to work additional days.”

But on Aug. 9 United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing approximately 34,000 members in Los Angeles Unified, filed an unfair practice charge on over the district’s decision to add four optional days to the school year.  In the complaint, UTLA alleges the additional days were added without notifying the union or giving the union a chance to bargain, thus violating the Educational Employment Relations Act.

UTLA contends the four days, despite being considered “optional,” were imposed without any consultation with parents, teachers or other district employees. The union called it an overstepping of the district’s authority, and a failure to include teachers in discussions about how to recover learning time lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our students don’t need four optional extra school days, they need a district that is committed to investing in their future,” Marcela Chagoya, a special education teacher, said in a statement. “The lack of transparency or planning around these ‘Accelerated Days’ makes clear that the district does not have a plan for these days and instead sees this as a cheaper alternative to investing in smaller class sizes, and more social, emotional and health resources for our students.”

The union and the district are currently engaged in contract negotiations. UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said Superintendent Carvalho should include educators in all decisions involving students in the classroom.

“We are being left out of conversations on how to most effectively invest in student learning,” Myart-Cruz said. “The district has chosen to make hasty decisions that will have more negative consequences for both educators and students, while the contract for more than 30,000 employees has expired.”

The district responded to the complaint by pointing out they were “purely optional” days and that teachers will be offered additional pay if they participate.

UTLA voted to boycott the first acceleration day imposed by LAUSD on Oct. 19. The union will host a rally instead. About 80% of UTLA members can choose to voluntarily work on Oct. 19. The remaining 20% who must work that day are being asked by the union to engage in parent outreach before and after school to explain the purpose of the downtown rally.

Shirley Van der Plas was a classroom teacher at Washington Preparatory High School for 16 years before her recent move to administration. She hopes that students will take advantage of the acceleration days to catch up and get additional tutoring, but she is not hopeful.

“If you give a student the option to go to school on a random Wednesday or have the day off, most are going to choose not to go. It doesn’t seem like it’s been terribly vetted or well thought out by the district. But we’ll see when one comes up,” Van der Plas said.

She recalls some students telling her that they had opted to take the year off during the period of remote classes. Most students were severely behind when schools reopened.

“We received kids who were incoming 9th and 10th graders who hadn’t been to a school setting in over a year,” she said. “So it was like having two years of middle schoolers on the high school campus.”

Van der Plas estimates that the negative effects of remote classrooms will linger for the next four or five years, partly due to the automatic  “social promotion”  where students are pushed up to the next grade as they get older, whether they are prepared or not.  Additional effects may include reading at a lower level, lower comprehension and social-emotional learning.

Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.