Case Study: The 3 Pillars Guiding Learning Recovery — and Student Growth — at Our Denver Schools as We Rush to Catch Kids Up After the Pandemic

Students attend summer school at Denver’s University Prep Charter School. (Courtesy University Prep)

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The staff and board of University Prep Charter Schools stepped up this spring, recognizing an urgent need to develop an ambitious vision and catch-up plan that would support all children in getting back on track following more than a year of disruptions and struggles. Our objective: To ensure that, despite the significant challenges brought on by the pandemic, all our scholars will remain on track with grade-level performance, while receiving any and all supports they may need (academically, socially, emotionally and beyond).

At U Prep, we are unwavering in our belief that all children, from all backgrounds, can learn at the highest levels. They are brilliant, beautiful people and absolutely capable. Eighty-five percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and 94 percent are students of color. In 2017, scholars at our Steele Street campus in Denver had the highest math growth in the state (out of all public elementary schools) and the eighth highest English Language Arts (ELA) growth, after a single year.

We take great pride that U Prep increased academic proficiency by more than 30 percent during that year while educating an equivalent student population to who we serve today, with more than 70 percent of our seats serving English Language Learners. You can read about that success in detail here.

As we now turn our focus to catch-up efforts in the wake of COVID, we’re leaning on that past experience along with our core values to drive our strategy.

Over the next two years, we are leveraging American Rescue Plan – ESSER dollars to ensure that children who’ve fallen the furthest behind during remote learning will now make the most rapid growth. And, while we drive that academic work forward, which we believe is critical in fulfilling our mission of providing every child with a life of opportunity, we are also expanding our partnership with the Mental Health Center of Denver to ensure children and families alike receive any and all additional mental health support they may need.

Our learning recovery approach is being guided by three key pillars:

Grade Level is Grade Level: All scholars will be given access to grade-level content regardless of their level of current performance.

Rapid Acceleration: We deliver moderate to significant interventions through additional staffing and a variety of targeted supports so that children get what they need when they need it.

Family Partnerships: Every family deserves to know exactly where their child is, in relation to grade-level expectations. Built on a foundation of trust and honesty, educators engage with families as genuine partners who play an active role in their child’s “catch-up.”

Grade Level is Grade Level

No matter what you’re doing to catch kids up, you cannot stop putting grade-level content and work in front of them.

A fifth-grader who might be reading at a third-grade level must still be exposed to fifth-grade text and curriculum. We firmly believe that the more time a child is immersed in grade-level content alongside effective supports, the more growth they’re able to make.

Teachers regularly run critical grade-level assessments to gauge where children are, and create a game plan for aligning supports that will increase access to that grade-level work. Simultaneously, our school leaders have made significant investments in data analysis and are able to swiftly develop action plans that can support effective instruction with meaningful and rigorous grade-level curriculum.

Rapid Acceleration

This coming year, we will operate our K-5 campuses as if there were three small school models within them (while all staff, children and families remain deeply connected to the larger school).

Grades K-1 will operate as normal as possible (close to our ideal state), while we implement moderate interventions in grades 2-3. For our fourth and fifth graders, we will be committing to significant interventions; their needs in catching up and preparing for middle school (and beyond) is very different from our first graders’s needs, and we know that our remaining time with this oldest cohort is short.

With Rescue Plan dollars, we’re hiring an additional teacher at each campus to support grades 2-3, and two extra teachers to support grades 4-5 at each campus – one for each grade level. This means far more direct support and targeted individual and small group interventions for the children who are furthest behind and most need it. We will use assessments to further gauge unfinished learning and will then adjust instruction as needed with extra staff ready to play their part.

Beyond the school day, we have nearly 60 children (rising fourth and fifth-graders) in intensive tutoring this summer through a partnership with Impact Tutors. This multi-week support provides scholars who are the furthest behind with a chance to begin their catch-up efforts now and build momentum heading into the school year ahead. In a bid to remove as many barriers as possible, all costs associated with the tutoring, as well as transportation, are covered by U Prep.

Tutoring will not conclude with summer’s end. Both U Prep campuses in Denver will provide afterschool tutoring Monday through Thursday throughout the school year, building on the knowledge and skills being acquired during core content instruction. Like the work over the summer, this tutoring opportunity will target upper elementary aged scholars and all costs will be covered.

Family Relationships

Strong home-to-school and school-to-home relationships must remain central in our efforts to catch kids up. This requires ongoing, honest conversations. Families deserve to know where their child actually is in relation to grade-level standards, and to understand the impact that this highly disrupted 15 months of school has had on learning.

One example of this belief being put into practice: Last December, U Prep had all students come to school in person during the height of remote learning to take part in literacy assessments, our “Literacy-palooza”. Parents reserved a time slot that worked for them, drove up to the buildings, were greeted with a hot cup of coffee and pastry, and waited while each child entered the school for a one-on-one test (with full health and safety guidelines in place). After their tests, kids selected brand new books to take home and add to their personal libraries.

Even during the most challenging of times this past year we found a way to communicate directly and honestly with families about where their child stands. They always deserve to know, and from that position of shared knowledge, we can build a shared plan. (What are we doing at school? What can you be doing at home? How can we do this together?).

Continuing to invest in relationship building, this summer we are making home visits to not only all of our new U Prep families, which we do each year, but to all of our returning fourth and fifth-grade families too. Through the year, every family will participate in four parent-teacher conferences, one each quarter, to make sure families have a crystal-clear view of how their student is progressing academically, socially and emotionally, and to ensure our partnership is strong and healthy. Every one of these moments, whether in conferences or home visits, is another chance to also learn from our parents’ expertise about their child – they are their first and primary educator and we have to be constantly learning from their expert knowledge.

A Challenge — and Opportunity

The three pillars of our catch-up plan, combined with our core values and historic success at targeting support, position us to do right by all children and families we serve. The U Prep board, together with the school teams, makes a promise to every child that they will be educated on the path to a four-year college degree and a genuine life of opportunity.

While the last year plus was an absolute test in maintaining our mission, the years ahead will be an even greater test of our level of care and commitment. We are ready and beyond excited to lean in to the opportunity ahead — to do anything and everything possible to ensure every student catches up.

That is our responsibility and one we take extremely seriously.

Recardo Brooks is a member of the board of University Prep and the parent of an alum. The tuition free public charter schools serve 727 children in Kindergarten through 5th grades at two campuses in Denver.

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