This is how Neidig Elementary School is tackling its students’ pandemic learning loss

Surrounded by the names of 522 Neidig Elementary School students, color-coded based on their scores on district benchmark tests, Krissy Wainwright presented a game plan.

“You’re doing fluency,” Wainwright, who coaches fellow teachers at the K-5 Bucks County school, confirmed with one third-grade instructor. Then she continued around the room: “You’re doing phonics. You’re doing book clubs.”

The list of assignments reflected the varying needs of the school’s students, who would be split into groups each day for targeted help with reading.

But it also reflected the degree to which schools are searching — without much of a guidebook — for the best approach to get kids back on track even three years after the start of the pandemic disruptions.

“It’s difficult to articulate and quantify the misses that occurred,” Neidig Principal Scott Godshalk said, and “what that means in a child’s development, over the course of those really impressive years.”

Like schools nationally, Neidig has seen student achievement suffer since the pandemic—with some of the steepest drops in test scores in the Philadelphia region. The elementary school fell from scoring nearly 60% proficient on the math portion of the Pennsylvania System of State Assessments in 2019 to less than 31% in 2022. Reading scores also showed a sharp decline, from more than 63% proficient in 2019 to just under 40% in 2022.

School officials aren’t sure why their students dropped more than many of their peers, although schools that started with lower proficiency rates also didn’t have as far to drop. Neidig, like other elementary schools in the Quakertown Community School District, returned students in person five days a week by October 2020, earlier than some others.

Yet school was still far from normal: Students left by 2 pm, nearly two hours early, because buses needed to accommodate social distancing. Others continued learning from home, with teachers split between the students sharing the room and those on computer screens. And staffing shortages plagued Neidig long after students were back in classrooms, with disruptions continuing throughout last year as Godshalk struggled to cover classes.

What he and the Neidig staff are facing now is a task confronting schools more broadly: filling in the gaps, while trying not to fall behind on this year’s learning.

“What we’re asking them, with the standards at each grade level, is to make more than a year’s worth of growth in one year,” Godshalk said.

In schools around the region, teachers are “feeling the pressure” from administrators to boost test scores, said Nicole Carl, director of the Urban Teaching Residency master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Student teachers Carl works with in Philadelphia have been directed to ensure students are logging on to online remedial programs for certain numbers of hours, she said, while schools with reading and math specialists — like Neidig — have been providing targeted instruction.

What approach a school takes depends on the community, their level of resources, and what their children need, Carl said: “I don’t think that any school knows yet what’s going to work.”

Godshalk says he’s lucky to have the resources he does. Neidig’s staffing levels are better this year. And in addition to Wainwright, who also serves as a reading specialist, and another instructional coach who doubles as a math specialist, Neidig has a reading specialist through the federal Title 1 program, based on its poverty rate; 44% of students are economically disadvantaged.

Those specialists—and the school’s teachers—have been dissecting scores to determine where students have fallen behind.

The PSSAs, which are administered to third through eighth graders across Pennsylvania, tell schools whether kids are meeting state standards. But they don’t reveal the underlying issues: Did a child get a reading question wrong because they don’t understand setting, theme, character? Or because they couldn’t decipher the words?

For that level of insight, Neidig, like other schools, uses internal assessments—in the case of reading, a test known as DIBELS. The school tested students in the fall and, with that baseline, set goals for the end of the year: for instance, that 66% of third graders would be able to read 114 words per minute. When the year began, just over half of the grade was able to read 70 words per minute.

Midyear testing found that just under half were now able to read 105 words per minute—a shifted goalpost from the fall. But some students “didn’t quite make that jump we wanted them to make,” Wainwright said. “We don’t want to wait anymore.”

Neidig already had been incorporating more phonics at older-than-usual grade levels—a recognition that children had missed some foundational reading instruction during the pandemic. But by January, testing showed enough third graders to fill a classroom were still struggling with it, warranting more targeted instruction.

In a meeting earlier this month reviewing the scores, Wainwright planned with teachers to break those students into their own group during the school’s “What I Need” time, a daily 30-minute block reserved for extra help with already-introduced information, rather than new stuff.

She also suggested other strategies, like embedding routines for reading instruction into other classes and introducing older students to the concept of “heart words,” an approach the school’s K-2 teachers were already using: Rather than memorizing every irregular word, students could learn irregular prefixes and suffixes, allowing them to decode more words.

“I know that might be holding back our fluency,” Wainwright told teachers. (She was referring to the ability to read accurately, with proper phrasing and emphasis — “all of the things that go together to make your reading understandable.”)

She next walked fourth-grade teachers through their grade’s results — “They were so far behind, the growth they’re making isn’t up to grade level,” observed one teacher, JoAnn Klee — while they viewed individual students’ scores, exclaiming at signs of progress: “I definitely grew. I have increased 40 words per minute.”

Teachers say the year has been marked by continued readjustment to the classroom experience. “Everything was computers and games,” Colleen Vasquez, a third-grade teacher, said of virtual learning. She said the stamina involved in putting “pen to paper” and diving “deep into something you’re learning — it’s so hard for them.”

So, before students can make gains, teachers say they have to start where they are. During a fourth-grade English class, teacher Lori Zuber circled the room as students in small groups read a passage from Love That Doga book by Sharon Creech, and tried to answer how Jack, the protagonist, had been brave.

A teacher of 26 years, Zuber said students are having a harder than usual time with “the productive struggle” and working through questions independently. She’s adjusted to give added help — creating graphic organizers with more explicit prompts, like “Jack was generous when” rather than “How has Jack changed?”

Students in her classes need to be able to read for comprehension, but some are struggling with phonics, Zuber said.

“We do have to take a step back sometimes,” she said.

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