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How are schools making up for the pandemic year?

Summer programs helped some students play catch up, and reunite with peers
Aimee DeSouchet, an Ignacio High School teacher, looks at summer school classes Tuesday. Teachers used big screen TVs and computers to guide students through online courses during the district’s additional in-person summer session. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata County school districts are expanding summer programs to help students catch up academically after a topsy-turvy year.

Students, teachers and families spent much of the 2020-21 school year switching between remote and in-person lessons and trying to keep track of constantly shifting COVID-19 guidelines. The impact on students’ academic progress is not clearly known – one indicator, state test scores, should come out soon.

One district, the Ignacio School District, started an entirely new summer program to help students make progress on their courses.

“Of course, across the board, students had gaps in their education, but they were making good progress,” said Barb Fjerstad, Ignacio High School principal.

Those gaps did not seem to be as significant as the administration feared, Fjerstad said, but state testing results will offer a clearer picture of student progress.

“I don’t know that we can necessarily recoup everything we lost. You just need to meet them where they are at, across the board,” she said.

Ignacio, like Bayfield and Durango, has expanded its summer programming to do just that.

Ignacio teachers facilitated a three-week additional summer program for high school students who needed to catch up in core classes: English, math, science and social studies. The goal was to help students master academic objectives from last year and to keep them on track for graduation.

The summer session focused on helping students navigate their online courses. Teachers were able to offer real-time feedback, grade assignments and make sure students felt confident to move forward. After the session, the high school students had until August to complete their coursework.

“Something I noticed right off the bat was that kids were much more motivated in getting their stuff done for summer school,” said Aimee DeSouchet, high school math teacher and summer instructor. “I think it became pretty clear to them, ‘If I don’t get this math credit, I’ll have to take two math classes next year and I didn’t want to do that.’”

About 60 students attended the session, which was offered for the first time in June. The students were relaxed and unstressed in the summer environment. Some moved quickly through the program; others took more time, said Alisha Gullion, who led the English coursework during the summer session.

“Some (students) I hadn’t seen in person all year,” Gullion said. “It was just great to see them and see them interact with their peers. We also had a snack time and break time in the commons to spend time with their friends. I could tell a lot of them really enjoyed that aspect of it.”

In Bayfield, the school district expanded the capacity for its annual high school credit recovery program and for its annual summer reading program for elementary students. About 51 primary and intermediate school students participated in summer programs in 2020. In 2021, the number jumped to 110.

“We know our kids are a little bit behind. We think we can make that up over the course of the school year,” said Bayfield superintendent Kevin Aten.

Aimee Desouchet, an Ignacio High School teacher, said students responded well to the district’s additional summer session. The program helped high school students make progress on courses necessary for graduation. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango also increased its summer school offerings. The summer school program for elementary students jumped from 30 to 100 available spots. The annual high school recovery program also expanded, and the school district is already reviewing data to assess student and staff needs, said Julie Popp, Durango School District 9-R spokeswoman.

“We have a lower-than-desirable number of third-grade students who are at grade level for literacy,” said Popp, adding the district is looking for ways to support growth. “If children are not reading on grade level by third grade, it really continues to be detrimental to their academic successes as they progress through the system.”

For Ignacio teachers, the summer program was a refreshing opportunity to do what they do best: teach, offer real-time feedback and support, and help students take their next academic steps, DeSouchet and Gullion said.

They have to wait until the start of the school year to see where students are at with their academic progress, they said.

Once the school year starts, Ignacio plans to offer additional support. High school athletes and students with low grades will have mandatory tutoring.

Freshmen and seniors will take seminars. The year-long freshman seminar will support students as they transition to high school by refreshing their social, emotional, reading and other academic skills. Peer tutoring will also be available.

“We’re kind of throwing everything we have at the freshmen class trying to pick them up and move them forward,” Fjerstad said.

Seniors will take a capstone to ensure they graduate on time and are prepared for their next steps.

“I know things will never be normal again, or hopefully they will,” Gullion said. “I know we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m just excited to get back with my students in the classroom.”


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