Miami, Broward schools push to get students back on track after pandemic learning losses
Miami Herald | By Madeleine Romance | Updated on August 3, 2021
After a year when many students had significant learning losses due to remote learning amid the pandemic, Miami-Dade and Broward public schools are ramping up, hiring teachers and tutors, academic and mental health counselors and getting families more engaged to get their students back on track for the school year.
Miami-Dade and Broward educators are deeply concerned about how far students have fallen behind during the past school year, when they went to school one day and pivoted to online learning the next, contending with balky computers, quarantines, parents not always home to guide them and not being able to chat with a teacher, coach or a friend in the hallway.
“We are very focused on learning losses; there is a lot of work we are going to have to do,” said Daniel Gohl, chief academic officer for Broward County Public Schools. “Forty percent of our elementary school students, half of our middle school students and two-thirds of our high school students have not been in a school building in 18 months.”
“As we prepare to return students to full in-person learning this coming school year, we have developed a series of new strategies and initiatives to address the unprecedented academic and social emotional needs they may exhibit,” noted Lissette Alves, assistant superintendent over curriculum and instruction at Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Miami-Dade Public Schools is the nation’s fourth-largest district, with 245,000 students in traditional public schools; Broward Public Schools is the nation’s sixth-largest school district, with about 204,000 students.
Like other school districts across the country, Miami-Dade and Broward schools have been working to bolster students’ academics and reverse the learning losses they’ve documented.
DROP IN READING, MATH SCORES DURING THE PANDEMIC
Student test scores in Miami-Dade Public Schools from January showed that an average of 43 percent of Pre-K through 3 students were below grade level in reading, and 54 percent were below grade level in math, according to a presentation Alves made in May to the Miami-Dade School Board.
In Broward, students from second to fifth grades were also behind in reading, according to January test scores, with 17 percent of second graders below by two grade levels while 28 percent of fifth graders were below by two grades or higher. In math, students from first to fifth grades were behind, with first graders registering two grades below while fourth and fifth graders were two or more grade levels behind, according to the Broward school district.
In Broward, about 65,000 students struggled “academically, socially and emotionally” — or about one-fourth of the students in the district — as a result of online learning during the pandemic, Robert Runcie, the district’s superintendent at the time, said earlier this year.
Schools across the country have documented similar learning losses as they grappled with remote learning, high truancy rates, missing students and stress brought on by the economic and health consequences of the pandemic, which killed more than 600,000 people in the United States, including more than 39,000 in Florida.
Dr. Michelle Schladant, assistant director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami, likened students’ learning losses to the “summer slide” — only 10 times worse.
“Think about returning to school or the next grade without certain basic skills and the teacher has moved on. Those students have a learning gap and won’t simply catch up by working harder or faster,” Schladant said in an interview with the Herald earlier this year.
HIRING TEACHERS, EXPANDING TUTORING
To counter these factors, Miami-Dade and Broward school districts have been hiring more teachers, expanding tutoring, promoting parental involvement, partnering with after-school programs and hiring more mental health counselors.
In Broward, the district will apportion its $256.9 million in federal stimulus funds to target areas, including $112.7 million to academic recovery, $49.1 million to charter schools and $37 million to staff retention.
Miami-Dade Schools has received approximately $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds. Of the roughly $823 million it received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which President Biden signed into law on March 11, 2021, 20 percent — or approximately $165 million — will go toward learning losses, as mandated by the law.
“Without the additional federal funding, we would not be able to do the types of initiatives that we are undertaking to address COVID-19,” Gohl said.
SUMMER SCHOOL PROGRAMS GREATLY EXPANDED
The districts started their big push with summer school.
Miami-Dade Schools launched Summer 305, an extensive summer program free of charge for students from Pre-K through 12th grade. The program includes more than 70,000 students at 179 schools, about 10 times higher than previous summer school enrollments. It also includes before- and after-care programs and camps.
The district used $50 million from federal stimulus funding and other federal grants to hire staff. It partnered with The Children’s Trust, a Miami-based nonprofit focused on children’s educational issues, to run programs at 302 camps.
“We want and need, and need for the sake of our students, parents to gravitate to our offerings this summer,” Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said before the program started.
The goal was to mitigate learning losses brought on by the pandemic. In addition to the classes, students participated in academic and enrichment camps focused on strengthening skills in reading, math and STEM that they will need for the next grade level.
Broward Schools enrolled about 45,000 students in its expanded summer program, about seven times more than its previous summer school enrollment.
Like Miami-Dade, Broward not only offered academic instruction but developed activities so students could learn how to interact with each other again, Gohl said. Among them: art, STEM-based programs like Minecraft (the educational version), plays, public speaking.
“It has been a joyous summer of learning in Broward County,“ said Gohl, who noted students have been telling teachers they “are very happy to be back with in-person learning.”
WHAT’S AHEAD FOR THE SCHOOL YEAR IN MIAMI, BROWARD
Both districts have used federal pandemic stimulus funds to hire more teachers and academic counselors as well as expand tutoring.
In Miami-Dade, the district is allocating funding for 400 teaching positions.
Broward is hiring 462 teachers to provide co-teaching, tutoring and student intervention services to serve students across the district. The district is also hiring 26 academic counselors to work with students in the schools with the highest needs, Gohl said.
Both districts also are building partnerships with well-established children’s programs to expand tutoring in before-care and after-care programs.
In Miami-Dade, the district is partnering with Shake-A-Leg Miami, One On One Learning and Learn It Systems to provide tutoring and mentoring services. It will also work alongside partners at Florida Memorial University, University of Miami, Barry University and City Year.
The extra support will provide reading coaches and instructional supervisors to schools. Additional support will be focused on curriculum specialists and ESOL. Miami-Dade is also allocating funds to expand individualized tutoring efforts at the schools that need it most.
In Broward, the district is developing tutoring programs within the school day, working with three groups — Saga Education, University Instructors LLC and the Institute for Learning — to help students build up their math and reading skills.
The district is also partnering with more than 60 organizations, including Children’s Services Council of Broward, the Boys and Girls Club and United Way to expand tutoring in before- and after-school programs.
FIRST FEW WEEKS OF SCHOOL
From Aug. 18, the first day of school in Broward, until the Friday before Labor Day on Sept. 6, Broward Schools will run a series of structured experiences in each school to help ease the adjustment of students returning to school.
“They need to be taught again — how will they go to the lunch room, how do they ask for a bathroom pass, how will they move through the hallways?” Gohl said.
Teachers, he added, will be watching for which students are fully prepared and which students need additional support, directing those who need more help to various support programs, including tutoring or counseling.
“Our job is to engage them and make them be comfortable, so that we can go from presence to engagement to achievement, which is a much longer road,” Gohl said. “But all of that achievement is based on having them be comfortable and focused.”
FOCUS ON MENTAL HEALTH OF STUDENTS
The districts also are cognizant that many kids lost out on a year of being with their friends, growing into their age group, interacting with their peers. That can do a lot of damage to a kid, and educators know they need to be prepared to pick up the slack of what Zoom couldn’t offer.
In July, the Miami Dade School Board unanimously approved a $13 million plan to hire an additional 20 mental health coordinators to augment the 70-member counseling staff. The plan also includes hiring four administrators and four program specialists to lessen the paperwork load on the coordinators.
Also, the district will hire 100 part-time mental health professionals on a contractual basis to work with students. And charter schools will receive $3 million, the district said.
The counselors will work with students during the school day and after school, focusing on treatment for students who may have experienced trauma, anxiety and depression.
The district also has set up a Parent Assistance line, which can be reached at 305-995-7100 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. And it has partnered with programs like SEL (Social, Emotional Learning) Strong, along with Florida Blue, Mindful Kids Miami and the Miami Heat — the Mindfulness Champions Initiative.
In Broward, the district is adding 63 mental health professionals — 26 school counselors, 20 school social workers, 10 family therapists and seven clinical nurses, Gohl said. The district also has allocated funds for a mental health supervisor, a coordinator for family counseling and a youth mental health awareness facilitator.
Broward will embed social and emotional learning in its curriculum, with an emphasis on teaching students persistence, respect, the ability to listen, the ability to have a voice — things that don’t translate through a computer screen.
“Education is more than just test scores,” Gohl said. “We need to make sure that we are helping our students develop holistically, and that means making sure we pay attention to the people, and not just the skills they demonstrate on tests.”
ENGAGING PARENTS IN STUDENTS’ SUCCESS
Parental involvement will be key to students getting back to where they need to be, and that includes communication with both kids and their teachers.
Miami-Dade is bringing back in-person parent workshops beginning in the first quarter in combination with virtual content including live and pre-recorded webinars, all of which can be found on its website.
The process will also work from the inside out — providing professional development opportunities for teachers and other school administrators and specialists on best practices for family engagement.
It will also expand outreach efforts, including through a monthly newsletter to give tips, information and resources to all families, and to extend support specifically to families who are experiencing unstable housing.
Broward will also be providing parents with guides explaining what their student should expect in the year ahead for their particular grade level. Parents should be talking with their students about what they’re learning and to remind them that their work and effort is important, according to Gohl.
“If they detect that the student is disengaged or has a change in attitudes where they are getting particularly negative about school, to reach out and get assistance,” Gohl said. “It is never too soon to intervene, to make sure that any student is on the right track.”
Parents also need to keep in contact with teachers to monitor any developments and to know what the teacher is doing with students, Gohl said.
“This coming fall is incredibly important,” Gohl said. “The pandemic was a generational impact event, and while our school buildings will reopen we know it will be several years before we’ll be able to sort out all the impacts on individual students from this time.”