After being out of the classroom for 18 months beginning in March 2020, Elias Boone enjoyed and benefited from two different summer instructional sessions this year, his mother says.
The 7-year-old first-grader at Springfield's Black Hawk Elementary School made friends while learning during one week of Camp Invention at Franklin Middle School and four weeks of Camp Compass at Harvard Park Elementary. He progressed socially and emotionally as well as academically, according to his mother.
"He took field trips and made new friends and overcame his shyness and learned to work in groups," Amber Boone said. "We've seen so much growth in him, and we continue to see growth in him."
Elias was among more than 2,100 Springfield School District 186 students who participated in summer programs in 2022 – triple the total compared with past summers. And many of the children's families found it easier to send their students because of the free transportation provided and the elimination of participation fees some programs had required in the past but that the district was able to cover this time.
Those expanded programs – funded with millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief from the federal government – were one of many strategies the 13,000-student district has employed to begin what is expected to be a multi-year road to academic recovery amid learning losses related to the pandemic.
The district also is increasing the use of tutoring, and it is spreading the academic- and career-building techniques from the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program beyond elective classes at the middle and high school level so all students in all classes and grade levels take part.
For special-education students in a district where 22% of students have individualized education programs, or IEPs, District 186 is more aggressively promoting inclusion, leading to fewer self-contained classrooms for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. That way, special-ed students can learn more effectively in regular-education classrooms with in-class support services, district officials said.
And the district, in partnership with the Springfield Education Association, this year formally kicked off the Springfield Resiliency Initiative at seven pilot schools to blunt the academic damage that can occur because of trauma such as abuse and neglect and stresses often exacerbated by poverty.
With Springfield and the rest of the country beginning to emerge from the two-and-a-half-year COVID-19 pandemic, District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill said 2022 represents a "brand new baseline year for us" in gauging efforts to recover academically from the pandemic's illnesses, lockdowns, remote learning, masking requirements, parental job losses and other disruptions.
It will take time before the district is "moving smoothly and students have everything they need," Gill said. "I think we're very much in that rebuilding phase right now where we're recharging, rebuilding and giving students what they need to be successful to get past the gap. But it's going to take three to five years, and that's if there are no other setbacks."
Report illuminates learning losses
Gill said she wasn't surprised that the latest Illinois Report Card data illuminated what educators called "missed learning opportunities" among students across the state, with students from low-income families often experiencing the greatest setbacks. An estimated 70% of the district's students come from low-income families.
The 2022 Illinois Assessment of Readiness, known as IAR, showed about 30% of students between third and eighth grade statewide met or exceeded state standards in reading, while 25.8% met or exceeded state standards in mathematics. The reading scores represented a 7.5-percentage-point drop from 2019, and the math scores represented a 6.2-percentage-point drop.
In District 186, overall scores for third- through eighth-graders in reading and math were lower than the state average. Only 21% of district elementary students met or exceeded state standards in reading in 2022, and 15% met or exceeded standards in math.
At the high school level, 20% of district students met or exceeded reading standards, compared with 30% statewide, while 19% met or exceeded math standards, compared with 29% statewide, as measured by the SAT test.
Compared with 2019 scores, the district's 2022 scores at the elementary and secondary levels dropped by between 13.6% and 37%. Those reductions were on par with reductions in schools nationwide.
Bright spots in the Illinois Report Card data include the fact that 22 of the district's 31 schools are labeled "commendable," a classification that indicates there are no demographic groups performing at or below the lowest-performing 5% of all Illinois schools, Gill said.
Eight of 10 elementary schools that previously scored lower were listed as commendable, including Dubois, Enos, Graham, Fairview, Feitshans, Hazel Dell, McClernand and Wilcox.
Four schools had one or more demographic groups performing below the commendable level: Harvard Park Elementary, Grant Middle, Ridgely Elementary and Matheny-Withrow Elementary. And four schools overall didn't meet the threshold for commendable status: Lanphier High School, Jefferson Middle, Washington Middle and Lee Elementary.
There were increases of between 1.7 and 5.4 percentage points in overall reading and math scores from 2021 to 2022 at grades three, four and five, according to district officials. And elementary students are doing better than almost half of their peers statewide in reading and math scores.
But the 2022 graduation rate dropped at all three high schools compared with 2019 and remains lower than the 87.3% state average. Springfield High's 2022 rate was 81%, Southeast's was 67%, and Lanphier's was 55%.
The district also struggles with chronic absenteeism, measured by students who miss 10% or more of school days without a valid excuse. That rate was 57.6% in the 2021-2022 academic year, compared with 34% in 2018-2019.
District 186 expands summer offerings
The district has received almost $108 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding since March 2020, and one use for that money was expanded summer programs. The district worked with several nonprofit organizations, including Compass for Kids, Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois, The Outlet and the YMCA to offer an array of options.
Elias Boone's Camp Invention experience allowed him to delve into science through fun activities and experiments, his mother said. Amber Boone, an office manager, said the elimination of a participation fee made it affordable for her and her husband, Joshua, a retail/wholesale store manager. They also have a son attending eighth grade at Franklin Middle School.
Elias was excited every day going to the science camp, and "he was really sad when it was over," Amber Boone said.
Elias said he brought home a robotic fish from the science camp. And when asked what he enjoyed about Camp Compass, he cited the field trips. "We went on lots of adventures," he said.
While Elias is doing well in school, Amber Boone said the camps helped Elias develop socially.
"I want him to be able to work with others," she said. "These programs allowed him to continue to learn better social and emotional learning skills that will set Elias up to succeed in life, academics and work."
Black Hawk Principal Stephanie McCorkle said Black Hawk teachers found that students who attended summer programs tended to not experience the traditional summertime loss in learning. In fact, many of those students experienced gains, she said.
With so many students dealing with anxiety, sadness and fear during the pandemic, Boone said, "You want to give them the tools and the resources to go forward. What the district put together for the summer was amazing. ... I would love to see it expand and continue. It gives the kids something to do over the summer, and it allows them to grow socially and emotionally."
The expanded federal funding over a four-year period, which is more than twice the amount the district normally would receive from the federal government, runs out in September 2024. With two more summers budgeted, and with programs during the regular school year needing support to deal with longstanding "opportunity gaps" highlighted during the pandemic, Gill said she hopes elected leaders take note.
"We hold out hope that the federal government's going to see that we need support beyond the money that's going to run out in 2024," she said. "We're kind of calling it a fiscal cliff."
Terrance Jordan, District 186's director of school leadership and family and community engagement, said it was a challenge to find enough staff to help with the expanded summer programming despite the extra pay.
Parents "loved" the new opportunities for their children, he said. "We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from the families," he said.
Jordan said his goal is to erase the stigma that some families attach to summer instruction because they view it as remedial. Especially because of the pandemic, learning "acceleration" is the new focus, he said.
"We want to accelerate and move them faster along," he said.
Career and college preparation program expands to all students
Another acceleration initiative comes through the AVID program, which helps teach students how to be organized, take charge of their own education and focus on preparation for college and careers. AVID is "for everybody now," Gill said.
At Butler Elementary School, AVID has been incorporated into all grades for seven years, but that's not the case at all schools.
The organizational skills stressed in AVID are considered "best instructional practices," but AVID calls for those skills to be explicitly taught, Butler Principal Sarah Beveridge said.
As part of AVID, team-building and group activities are the norm to build collaboration skills and what is known as "relational capacity," or social and emotional learning, she said.
Students who get along with and are comfortable with their classmates are more likely to ask questions and pursue learning rather than waiting to be fed information, according to Liz House, a fifth-grade teacher at Butler and a leader at the school in AVID techniques.
"It's about pushing yourself ... to be proud of what you produce when it's done," she said.
Student desks at Butler are clustered in groups, rather than in the traditional rows that students' parents likely encountered when they were in school. Banners from various colleges hang in the hallways, and teachers post their educational credentials outside their classrooms for students to see.
During part of the day, students work on their own, with assistance from teachers if necessary, on computer tablets and use software new to the district this year because of the federal funding. Exact Path software leads students through math and reading exercises geared toward their individual learning levels. Study Island software measures their skills against grade-level standards.
Butler's parent-teacher organization and the Springfield Public Schools Foundation augments the social and emotional learning by paying for a yoga instructor who works with students on "mindfulness" – both physical and mental awareness that can help students focus and deal with stress, Beveridge said. Studies show all of those skills make it easier for students to learn, she said.
The shift for students with special needs to have "more inclusive opportunities" in regular-education settings became even more important after the district saw a "huge impact" on learning caused by pandemic-related disruptions in classroom routines, Gill said.
"Students with disabilities need us more than ever," she said. "By maximizing students' opportunities in regular-education environments in an intentional manner, it increases peer-to-peer interactions within their given grade level."
The district promoted inclusion prior to the pandemic, Gill said, but she added, "We took the time during the pandemic to do further research and build on our current model of implementation. This model includes co-teaching, where regular educators and special educators work alongside one another. We currently have four elementary schools participating as initial implementation sites, as well as the Early Learning Center."
Trauma-informed care programs
The trauma initiative has begun this school year at Washington Middle School, Douglas Alternative-PREP, Springfield Learning Academy and Feitshans, Ridgely, Fairview and Matheny-Withrow elementary schools. The district and the Springfield Education Association jointly support the pay of Gail Neely Kolbeck, who coordinates the initiative and provides in-service instruction to teachers and other support.
The president of the National Education Association, Becky Pringle, visited Washington Middle School in the spring to learn more about and commend Washington staffers for what is known as trauma-informed care.
"I just wanted to stand up and honor you," Pringle told several Washington staff members during her April 22 visit. "I hear about challenges everywhere, but the excellence I see embodied in this community is extraordinary, and you do it all because you love your students."
The five District 186 schools are participating in the multi-year initiative because their staffs decided to make the commitment, Kolbeck said. The initiative is designed to create awareness of the impact of adversity and on childhood development and improve the ability of schools to "buffer and mitigate" those stresses, identified as "adverse childhood experiences" in a landmark 1995 study, she said.
"As education has become more knowledgeable about behavior and why behavior happens, we realize that there are a lot of children in this community and this world who are living in adversity," Kolbeck said.
That adversity, she said, can show up in many forms, including abuse, neglect, experiencing loss, a family history of mental health issues and addiction, unsafe housing, food insecurity and community violence.
The initiative calls for adults in their school buildings, as well as students, to work on self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills and social awareness, "because the adult culture shapes the student culture," Kolbeck said.
"We're helping adults understand what trauma looks like, how it shows up in the classroom or the school building and how to mitigate, or buffer, the trauma," she said. "This is not about 'fixing' children, or adults, for that matter. We want people to look at behavior and say, 'What has happened to you?' rather than 'What is wrong with you?'
"Through this initiative and at all of our district schools, we are working intentionally to create schools that are safe, predictable and consistent for all students, staff and families," she said.
Much of the initiative deals with building positive relationships inside the buildings and helping staff members be better attuned to students' emotional needs, she said.
"What we know is if we do those kinds of things, the likelihood of students acting out is decreased ... and they can go about their day and be productive," Kolbeck said.
"When people feel seen, heard and accepted, they feel like they belong, and belonging is a very important piece of this whole puzzle," she said. "When students feel like they belong somewhere, they are more likely to partner with you.
"What we find is the more we lean into kids, and the more we say to them, 'I don't want you to be in trouble, I want to help you,' they eventually start to come around."