By Carolyn Thompson
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (AP) - Richard Evans makes his way through rows of his students in his third grade classroom, stooping to pick up an errant pencil and answering questions above the din of chairs sliding on hardwood floors.
The desks, once spread apart to fight COVID-19, are back together. Masks cover just a couple of faces. But the pandemic maintains an unmistakable presence.
Look no further than the blue horseshoe-shaped table in the back of the room where Evans calls a handful of students back for extra help in reading - a pivotal subject for third grade - at the end of each day.
Here is where time lost to pandemic shutdowns and quarantines shows itself: in the students who are repeating this grade. In the little fingers slowly sliding beneath words sounded out one syllable at a time. In the teacher’s patient coaching through reading concepts usually mastered in first grade - letter "blends" like "ch" and "sh."
It is here, too, where Evans jots pluses and minuses and numbers on charts he’s made to track each child’s comprehension and fluency, and circles and underlines words that trip up a student a second or third time.
In a year that is a high-stakes experiment on making up for missed learning, this strategy - assessing individual students’ knowledge and tailoring instruction to them - is among the most widely adopted in American elementary schools. In his classroom of 24 students, each affected differently by the pandemic, Evans faces the urgent challenge of having them all read well enough to succeed in the grades ahead.
Here is how he has tackled it.
GOING FROM PANDEMIC TO ‘NORMAL’ IS HARD
It is a Thursday in October, early in the school year. Six students surround Evans at the blue table, each staring down at a first-grade-level book about baseball great Willie Mays. Many are struggling.
"What sound does ‘-er’ make?’" Evans asks 9-year-old Ke’Arrah Jessie, who focuses through glasses on the page. She puts "hit" and "ter" together to make "hitter."
Next to her, a boy takes a turn. He pronounces "high" as "hig." Evans grabs a pen and jots down "night" and other "igh" words for a sidebar phonics refresher on the letter grouping. Meantime, the rest of the class reads on their own. While some page through below-grade-level readers, others plunge into advanced chapter books.
Most of these students were sent home as kindergartners in March 2020. Many spent all of first grade learning remotely from home full- or part-time. Even after schools reopened full time for second grade, COVID-related obstacles remained: masking and distancing rules that prevented group work, quarantining that sent kids home for a week without warning, and young children by then unaccustomed to - and unhappy about - full weeks of school rules.
Says Evans, who came to teaching at age 40 after a career as a computer graphics designer: "All year long, I had kids ask me, ‘Why do I have to be in school for five days?’"
MOVING FROM ‘LEARNING TO READ’ TO ‘READING TO LEARN’
At the beginning of this school year, assessments showed that 15 of Evans’ initial 23 students were reading below grade level. Of those, nine were considered severely behind, lacking basic foundational skills usually learned in first grade. In a typical year, four or five students would be reading at the lowest level, he said.
"I know I have to do something about that. That’s my job," Evans said, looking back.
There is no time to waste. Third-grade students are under urgent pressure to progress from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." Studies show those who don’t read fluently by the end of this school year are more likely to drop out or fail to finish high school on time.
Among those starting out behind is Ke’Arrah, who spent more than a year learning remotely early in the pandemic. Her mother, Ashley Martin, could see the toll on her daughter’s drive to learn. So when Ke’Arrah was assigned to a new elementary school for this year, her mother re-enrolled her in third grade.
The pandemic cut first grade short for Ke’Arrah. To keep the family safe, Martin kept Ke’Arrah home in second grade, too, even when she had the option to return to school in person two days a week. She has four children younger than Ke’Arrah, including a son born just three days before COVID-19 shut down schools and businesses in March 2020.
"It was good for me, but not great for her because she’s on a computer," said Martin, whose employer, a restaurant, temporarily closed.
Ke’Arrah, who likes math and wants to be a police officer, remembers the pull of her nearby toys as she tried to stay focused on her on-screen teacher.
"She was talking about boring stuff," Ke’Arrah says. Last year’s transition back to in-person school was rocky, her mother said. She finished behind in math and reluctant to read.
Midway through her second stint in third grade, Ke’Arrah shows progress. Martin has passed her love of the Junie B. Jones series of books to Ke’Arrah, and the pair read them together at bedtime. Small moments become reading lessons, too.
"She’s on the phone, I’m like: ‘Read that to me. Tell me, what does that say?’ We’re out somewhere: ‘Read this to me. What does it say?’" Martin says.
DOUBLING UP ON KIDS WHO NEED IT MOST
While many students are behind, Evans also referred more candidates than ever - five - for the school’s honors program because of their advanced scores on early assessments.
He pulled aside students who were reading well above grade level as the year began and explained they might not get as much one-on-one time with him, something he had never done before. That has allowed him to double up on the time he could spend helping other students to catch up, working with some groups twice or three times a week. The advanced readers spend that time reading and working together.
The range highlights the varied experiences during the pandemic, where some had more support at home than others.
"Were they read to? Was there someone to support them to do assignments and homework when they were not physically with the certified teacher and having direct instruction?" says Marcia Capone, assessment administrator in the district, which provided devices and internet hotspots to families.
In Niagara Falls, about one in four people live in poverty, and 80% of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged, state data shows. Despite swarms of tourists to its namesake falls, the Rust Belt city has been scarred by an exodus of heavy industry and population that began in the 1960s.
Districts like Atlanta have sought to address learning losses by adding time to the school day. Others, like Washington, D.C., have pursued "high-impact" tutoring. Niagara Falls City Schools have doubled down on remedial work and differentiated learning, customizing students’ lessons to keep each student moving forward. The district has used federal pandemic relief money to put 12 reading specialists to work with first graders in its eight elementary schools, Superintendent Mark Laurrie said.
Using assessments to identify students’ individual needs is the top strategy American schools are using to help kids catch up from the pandemic, followed closely by remedial instruction, according to a federal survey.
WITH THIS STUDENT, IT WORKED - FOR A WHILE
Evans invested his own time in one of his neediest students, a boy who is repeating third grade at Evans’ urging. He started keeping him after school once a week for an hour of intensive reading intervention.
"He’s like my little experiment," Evans said after one tutoring session in November. "With intense intervention, can you turn this around?"
The two had just slowly worked through a phonics worksheet that had the student circle words that began with the same letter as pictures. In one problem, "candy, " "open" and "after" followed a picture of an ant. "Open?" guessed the fidgeting student.
Evans had him close his eyes and say the words, thinking about the first sound of each. The trick eventually led him to the correct word, "after."
In other lessons, the student struggled to identify rhyming words and consonant blends. Each problem revealed another concept not yet mastered.
"Very good!" Evans said after the boy correctly added the missing "rd" to the end of lizard. He responded with a satisfied smile.
In a matter of weeks, the boy went from knowing just 11 sight words - common words like "because" and "about" that students should instantly recognize - to 66 of the 75 on the district’s third grade list.
"I want to be able to read chapter books, and I want to read big old dictionaries!" the boy said after a one-on-one tutoring session that had him working on what sounds letters make when together, like "sp," and "sn."
Then, midway through the school year, the child stopped staying after school. Evans said his student lost interest; without a parent’s nudging, there is only so much he can do.
Earlier in the year, the child’s mother had described pandemic remote learning as fraught. The family had internet connection issues, and it was difficult to schedule school sessions around her work as a nursing home aide.
‘’I have a younger daughter at home and it was just a mess. She’s screaming. It was just a whole thing," she said by phone.
When the tutoring stopped, she did not respond to follow-up calls or texts.
SHOWING LEARNERS ‘THERE’S A CONCERN FOR YOU’
Halfway through the school year, a new set of assessments suggests Evans’ strategy is, overall, working. He loads results into an Excel spreadsheet which, combined with his own running charts, lets him evaluate growth from September to January and regroup students based on where they need help most.
"Thank God for paper and sticky notes," Evans says.
What he saw in the charts arrayed in front of him was encouraging. Fifteen of his students had met or exceeded their scoring goals for this round of tests. Several who are receiving targeted help showed the biggest gains.
Ke’Arrah leapfrogged from a bottom level to the upper middle - to the relief of her mother, whose decision to have her daughter repeat third grade appears to be paying off.
"I know it’s going to be embarrassing when she gets older: ‘Oh, you’re a grade behind,’’’ Martin said. ‘’But she’s going to have that knowledge."
Despite the students’ progress, even some who see another big jump by the final assessments in May could finish behind typical third-graders. Evans has arranged for extra services for next year for three of his neediest students, including the boy he was tutoring after hours. But they will be far enough along to move on to fourth grade.
For the first time in his seven years teaching third grade, everyone improved, Evans says. "I don’t know if it’s the programs we’re using or if it’s the fact that everybody is more invested in it right now.’’
Maybe, he said, having so many students behind has made everyone in the building more invested in catching them up - "making them aware, ‘You know what? There’s a concern for you.’"