SANTIAGO: How Camden’s LEAP Academy Embraced an ‘Urgent Mindset’ and Successfully Stemmed Student Learning Loss During COVID

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Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the Founder and Board Chair of the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, New Jersey. She is also a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and the Director of the Community Leadership Center at Rutgers University-Camden.

Here at LEAP Academy, we know in-person learning is far more effective than virtual learning. Had we had our preference, all students would have been learning face-to-face from the start of the school year.

Bit the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans. We kept kids remote out of an abundance of caution – although distance learning is not an ideal platform for our inner-city learners.

Facts don’t lie

According to a report from the nonprofit JerseyCAN, New Jersey students lost 30% of expected learning in language arts and 36% of expected learning in math. The loss was greater for Black students, who lost on average 43% in language arts and 50% in math. The same report stated that Latino students lost 37% of expected learning in language arts and 40% in math.

At the same time, this is not just “another commentary designed to gripe about learning loss.” The time to feel frustrated is over. It is time to re-charge, innovate and re-design creative ways to serve our students and families and help them rebound, as we see a light at the end of the tunnel of the current public health crises.

Stakes Higher for Inner-City Learners

In the majority-minority community of Camden, New Jersey, where so many of students live at or beneath poverty level, stakes were higher.

Each student at the LEAP Academy University Charter School represents a key to breaking their family’s cycle of poverty. We cannot let these students or their families down. A lost school year may mean a student will become one more statistic of dropout and poverty.  It is a possibility we did not want to confront.

We needed to be inventive – and strategic – about the modifications we make to teaching during this point in time.

According to a national study of standardized test scores by McKinsey & Company, children from schools, with mostly Black and Latino backgrounds, have lost, on average, two more months of learning than students in white majority schools this year. Urban schools in general are struggling with this fact and are working actively to overcome them.

At LEAP Academy, we have worked creatively to steer around the roadblocks. We embrace an urgent mindset because, when it comes to our children’s welfare, you do whatever it takes.

How We Succeeded Despite The Circumstances

The pandemic forced us to reexamine our teaching and learning strategies. As we realized the school year would be fragmented – part in-person and part-remote – we developed a series of best practices to reduce the pandemic’s effect on our very specific type of student population. 

Our pandemic playbook included:

  • Extended school days, even when remote. 
  • In-person tutoring to help students better understand difficult concepts. 
  • Inquiry-based projects to help students develop problem-solving skills and improve their critical thinking acumen.
  • More professional development on remote teaching and learning to help our teachers better understand the realities of the new learning environment. 
  • Enhanced response to intervention.
  • In-class and home social/emotional support – especially important as many of our students’ families were dealing with job loss or illness.

How did we do?

While some learning loss occurred, our students lost less than other urban districts. Even better, no student at LEAP Academy has fallen through the cracks – even while other urban schools across the nation continue to struggle.

Our senior class is on track to achieve 100% graduation and college placement (for the 17th year in a row). One student even achieved admission to prestigious Carnegie-Mellon University. Moreover, our standardized test scores for math and reading held steady – even rose in some cases. 

By rededicating ourselves to our mission, we turned a negative into a positive. Our students deserve a top-notch education – and we were not going to let a pandemic deny them of it. As the going got tough, we became tougher. Our team rose to the occasion.

The family support unit at LEAP Academy ensured that our families and children would be supported throughout the pandemic. Our team members have been visiting homes to fix computers, set up WiFi routers, and work one-on-one with students as well as their parents and guardians. 

Looking Ahead

This approach has made a big difference, providing necessary aid for families and students and keeping the staff attuned to the needs of the community. Through necessity, we learned that some elements of virtual learning are effective, and can be incorporated into post-pandemic teaching strategies. Among them:

  • Closing the digital divide is not an impossible dream – even in poor communities. When we sent kids home last March, each one was issued their own laptop. When you can provide the right technological tools, the gap between poor and middle-class schools narrows significantly.
  • Some elements of teaching CAN be translated online, after all. For example, a teacher can institute spot quizzes or polls to gauge which students are understanding concepts and who needs deeper explanations. A polite student cannot simply nod their head, and say they understand when they, in actuality, do not. Teachers can clearly see which students need more instruction.
  • We saw that technology can make after-school time more effective. If a student is struggling, we realized that Zoom can extend online teaching into tutoring sessions after office hours. A student who learns at a more deliberate pace can receive extra help without needing to be in the building.

Now that a vaccine is readily available, many believe each day brings us closer to the end of the pandemic crisis. While things may never get back to a pre-pandemic “normal,” the educational experience from 2020 and 2021 will have a ripple effect for years to come. 

We hope another world crisis does not affect our students any time soon. But if it does, we are prepared to meet the educational challenges head-on.

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