spring breakthrough

Spring break at school? New research says it helps middle schoolers catch up

PHOTO: Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Students transition to gym class from Zoe Pierce's sixth grade science class at the Impact School in Springfield, Massachusetts in January 2017. Working with state officials, Springfield education leaders have crafted a first-of-its-kind plan for a Massachusetts school system, spinning off the middle schools into what effectively is their own miniature school system.

It has spread across Massachusetts as a school turnaround strategy: bring students into school over spring break for hours and hours of extra instruction.

That could be a recipe for unhappy kids. But recent research in Lawrence and now Springfield, two Massachusetts towns under pressure to improve their schools, suggests that students don’t mind spending those weeks in school — and they really benefit from it.

In Springfield, students who participated were much more likely to score proficient on state exams later that year. They were less likely to be suspended afterwards, too.

“This is a minimally disruptive strategy for helping struggling students catch up,” said Beth Schueler of the University of Virginia, who studied the program. “You don’t have to fire or find a large pool of new teachers.”

It’s the latest research pointing to the benefits of intensive small group tutoring. But the Springfield program wasn’t open to all: Students were invited based on whether they were seen as likely to benefit and to behave, raising questions about whether the model helps the kids who need it most.

What are these vacation academies?

Schueler’s study focuses on nine low-achieving middle schools in Springfield, all part of a partnership between the state, local teachers union, and district formed to head off a state takeover. The spring break program (known as “empowerment academies”) started in 2016, during the partnership’s first year, in a bid to boost test scores.

Springfield’s April vacation academy focused on math — particularly on the academic standards that frequently come up on state exams, the researchers noted. Classes were small, with about one teacher for every 10 students. It amounted to an additional 25 hours of math instruction, or approximately an extra month worth of exponents and equations.

The idea was extra math help, yes, but also designed to be appealing for students. Schools feature award assemblies and special theme days, like crazy hair days or superhero and villain dress-up days.

“It’s not just boot camp,” said Chris Gabrieli, the head of a nonprofit that helped implement the city’s turnaround approach. “If this was miserable for kids, it would never work the second year.”

The model was pioneered by Jeff Riley, now the Massachusetts commissioner of education, as principal of a Boston middle school. He took the idea to Lawrence as the head of that district’s state takeover.

Who got to attend?

Students were chosen for the program based on who was seen as likely to benefit and behave. That meant leaders avoided students with attendance or behavior issues, an approach used at the school where Riley piloted the model, too.

In Springfield, once the school decided which students were eligible, leaders allowed Schueler to randomly assign some the opportunity to attend or not in order to study the program. (Some students who didn’t win a spot attended anyway, and some students who won a spot didn’t attend, something the study accounted for.)

Ultimately, the students who went to vacation academy were different than the student population as a whole — only 10 percent had a disability, compared to 22 percent of all sixth- and seventh-graders in the district. Attendees were also somewhat more likely to be girls, but were equally likely to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Teachers applied to work over the break, and got bonuses — $2,500 in Springfield — for doing so.

How does the program affect students?

In terms of test scores, students on the cusp of clearing the state’s proficiency bar saw the biggest gains.

Students at school over spring break were much more likely to score proficient on the state math test: about 35 percent did compared to 25 percent of similar students who didn’t attend, according to Schueler’s study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.

Their average test scores were higher than those of students who didn’t attend the academy, though that boost wasn’t statistically significant.

Students were also less likely to be suspended after the vacation academy. While about 10 percent of control students were suspended once or more, less than 7 percent of students who went to the academy were.

The academy also may have helped students’ grades, with averages in both math in reading improving slightly, though that was not statistically significant.

How a student benefited may be connected to which version of the program he or she attended. In some academy programs, students had one teacher all day; in others they rotated among teachers who worked on different standards. Students in the first group saw bigger declines in suspensions; students in the second group saw larger test-score gains.

“It could be that the additional time … provided by the stability of a single teacher allowed for the development of more deep and positive teacher-student relationships,” Schueler wrote. “It is also possible that the program changed educator perceptions of participating students in a way that decreased their likelihood to turn to exclusionary discipline for those children.”

Should other districts adopt this model?

This kind of intensive academic help has been shown to work over and over again. A previous study found test score improvements from the same vacation academy model in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and programs that provide individualized tutoring throughout the year have produced even bigger gains in Boston, Chicago and Houston.

But these programs have faced difficulty growing because they come with a hefty price tag — sometimes upwards of a few thousand dollars per student. The Springfield program costs about $600 per student, which is lower because its student-teacher ratio is higher.

Tutoring, Schueler said, “has a high upfront cost that I think deters many districts from pursuing this as a key strategy. These vacation academies are potentially a more scalable approach.”

It still might be a worthwhile investment for districts. But they will have to contend with the fact that the model doesn’t include certain students — particularly those with behavior and attendance problems, who could be in the most academic trouble.

“This is not an intervention aimed at helping every single kid of every type,” said Gabrieli.

Of students who didn’t participate in the program, Schueler said, “We don’t know, if they actually ended up coming, if we would see the same effects.”

Measure of Success

State ratings identify 163 Colorado schools in need of improvement

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

More than 160 Colorado schools received one of the state’s two lowest ratings, making them eligible for additional assistance but also vulnerable to intervention if they don’t improve student performance.

The watch list comprises 9 percent of Colorado’s 1,800 schools and educate roughly 74,000 students, or 8.5 percent or the state’s almost 900,000 students. That means the vast majority of students in the state attend a school with one of the two higher rankings on the four-point scale.

The State Board of Education finalized the ratings Wednesday. The state gives separate district-wide ratings, which were finalized last month.

“The state’s accountability system is built on the premise that all students should receive a high quality education and graduate ready for college or careers,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Our goal is to give all students a chance to excel. These designations allow us to identify struggling schools that may need more support to help students achieve their highest aspirations. And they also highlight successful schools so that other schools can learn from them.”

All public schools receive a state rating, known as the School Performance Framework report, each year. It’s based largely on student scores on the state’s English and math tests. Student growth, or how much students learn year-to-year compared to peers with similar results on state tests, carries most weight. High school graduation and dropout rates are also factored in.

Colorado Department of Education

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest).

Schools and districts that have one of the lower two ratings are placed on a watch list and have five years to improve before facing state intervention. Schools on the list are eligible for grants for leadership training and help from outside consultants, but if change doesn’t come fast enough, the state could hand over control to an external manager, require conversion to a charter, or close schools.

Earlier this fall, the State Board of Education ordered the Adams 14 school district, based in Commerce City, and two schools in Pueblo in southern Colorado to turn over control to external managers after earlier intervention efforts did not produce enough improvement.

Colorado is still figuring out what effective intervention looks like and if outsiders can make a difference for students that existing leadership has not been able to achieve.

Most Colorado schools maintained the same rating they had in 2017, with 15 percent moving down at least one level and 14 percent moving up at least one level. Eighteen schools improved enough to get off the state watch list, which is often known as the “accountability clock,” some after initial state intervention last year.

Six schools are entering their eighth year on the watch list: Aurora Central High School, Adams City High School, Aguilar Junior-Senior High School in the tiny Aguilar district in southern Colorado, Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School in Douglas County, Heroes Middle School, and Risley International Academy of Innovation, the last two both in Pueblo.

Two are entering year six: Central Elementary School in the Adams 14 district and Minnequa Elementary School in Pueblo.

Another four are entering year five, now the last year to improve before state intervention: Manual High School and Montbello Career and Technical High School in Denver, Mesa Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado, and EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School in Douglas County.

In the past, some schools received more time to improve because the “clock” was paused for several years as the state changed assessments. But now there are no more extensions beyond year five.

Of the state’s 42 online schools, a little more than half received one of the top two ratings, and 31 percent did not report enough data for the state to grant a rating. Colorado has more stringent regulations of online schools than many states, but there is an ongoing debate about how well these schools serve students.

About 84 percent of the state’s 247 charter schools received one of the top two ratings, compared to 89 percent of all Colorado schools. Twenty-six charter schools, or 10.5 percent, received one of the lowest two ratings.

Look up your school here:

Literacy tutors needed

Detroit enlists volunteer tutors before third-grade reading law takes effect

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Detroit’s school district is asking the community for help getting students reading at grade level. The superintendent is hoping volunteer literacy tutors will prevent a critical mass of third-graders from being held back under the state’s tough new reading law.

“We need your help,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, making an appeal for volunteers during a school board meeting Tuesday night. “Our teachers and our principals and our schools alone will not be able to ensure that every student is at third-grade level without your help.”

Which is why the district is working with two community advocacy groups, Keep the Vote/No Takeover and the National Action Network, to launch the Let’s Read program, geared to K-3 students. The program is slated to begin in February — less than a year before the reading law takes effect. Once it does, during the 2019-2020 school year, Michigan third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level will be held back.

In the Detroit district, where proficiency levels on state exams are extremely low, the consequences could be dire. During a community forum last week, Vitti said that the law could hold back as many as 90% of Detroit third-graders, though Michigan’s education department has yet to define what it means for a student to be reading at grade level. At the forum, though, he noted exemptions from the law for such as students with special education needs and those who speak little to no English.

The Let’s Read volunteers will be assigned to individual students based on need. They will read with the children and help them with book selections.

Helen Moore, a longtime community activist who represents the two community organizations behind the volunteer effort, urged people to sign up during the public comment period of the meeting.

“I know our students will succeed, because they’re brilliant,” Moore said. But they and their parents need help, she said.

Vitti said the volunteer cohort is one of many literacy-building efforts underway. In addition, he said that every district school will hold family literacy nights and that its Parent Academy will expand its classes that teach parents how to help their children with reading. A community-wide event to teach Detroiters about the reading law — and what they can do to help — will also be held.

Moore said the word is starting to get out about the Let’s Read program, noting: “The telephone has been ringing like crazy. And now the suburban districts want to be part of it.”

The focus, though, is on Detroit, she said.

Want to volunteer: You can fill out a form here, or call 313-873-7884.