Public schools are making a host of changes to student support after an academic results report showed a worrying pattern of declining scores since the pandemic, particularly among students with special needs.
According to the report, the Calgary Board of Education is analyzing more than 80 recommendations for improvement, including a greater focus on literacy and numeracy in the early grades, better attendance, greater teacher development and greater support for English learners after thousands of refugees. Students were added in the last two years.
Compared to the previous academic year, students in all grades had lower report card grades in all core subjects, including math, science, social studies, and English language arts, with many cohorts showing their highest grades in 2018-19, before COVID. hit.
Students who learn English as an additional language, who self-identify as Indigenous or who have a range of special needs showed some of the biggest drops in academic scores over the past year and since the pandemic.
Officials have admitted that the public system has faced exceptional challenges in recent years, beginning with waves of school closures in 2020, followed by high rates of illness and absenteeism among students and teachers, resulting in significant learning losses, especially at the primary level where digital learning is more difficult.
And as the impacts of the pandemic have slowed over the past two years, the public school system is now facing historically high enrollment growth with thousands of new families arriving from across Canada, seeking a more affordable cost of living. , and from all over the world, as global. Tensions are rising in places like Ukraine, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
But Joanne Pitman, CBE superintendent of school improvement, says school officials are adding a number of unique tools and supports to improve academic performance, despite current challenges.
Much of the work, he explained, will be improving student evaluations. After students in the early grades suffered significant learning losses in literacy and numeracy, the CBE introduced the “Assessment of Foundational Reading Skills” for children as young as kindergarten.
“We’re using tools that will allow teachers to know exactly where students are, so they can adjust instructions sooner,” Pitman said, explaining that the assessment measures critical learning outcomes such as letter recognition or phonics sounds, and tracks the student performance during the early stage. grades to help teachers adjust lesson plans immediately.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for the last two years. It takes a while to implement the training, but now we have it in all schools.”
As mathematics has also seen lower scores in the early grades with the implementation of a new curriculum, the CBE has purchased a new digital resource called “MathUp”, which allows students to learn outside of a traditional textbook and provides teachers with more detailed information about where a student is upon entering a specific grade.
“It’s very different from a textbook, as it allows teachers to see different lesson plans, more ways of learning that are aligned with the new curriculum, and ways to differentiate students’ needs based on their prior knowledge.” “.
Teachers are also increasingly receiving access to professional development and online modules to help them deliver new curriculum, which is expected to be rolled out across all grades over the next few years.
The CBE has also introduced more rigorous tracking tools around attendance and is increasing efforts to communicate with families if students are not attending school regularly.
“The pandemic impacted the health of children and adults, and that definitely caused concern. But the pandemic also disrupted daily routines, and we know that some families are still not back to the way they were before the pandemic,” Pitman said.
“So from a non-punitive standpoint, we need to better help families understand that regular attendance really does make a difference in achievement.
“We’ve improved tracking tools…and staff are supported in a variety of ways to reach out to families, invite them and let them know that attendance is important, their kids are important and we want them in school.”
CBE will also look to add administrative resources to better support English learners, most of whom are refugees or non-Canadians who have arrived here from war-torn areas.
Mike Nelson, CBE’s interim superintendent of school improvement, estimated that of the more than 135,000 students present in CBE classrooms at the end of 2022-23, more than 26,000 were new to the district.
And of those students, almost 7,200 arrived by mid-year, with a significant number entering through the Welcome Centre, where CBE assesses refugees and non-Canadian students.
The population of students learning English as an additional language increased from 4,554 to 5,508 between 2021-22 and 2022-23.
Pitman said the system is making greater efforts to direct administrators to better support teachers in schools that serve larger populations of refugee and English-learner students.
“We are prioritizing core strategists to train alongside teachers in classrooms and model effective practices to accelerate language learning,” Pitman said.
“And we are looking to identify where we may need to provide additional support to individual schools depending on who is in their building, so that they have access to small group instruction or additional instruction.”
A good example is LEAD (Literacy, English and Academic Development) programs for newcomers facing exceptional challenges related to poverty, trauma and learning. This year alone, the CBE has grown from 31 to 38 classrooms supporting students in smaller settings.
For example, Forest Lawn High School now has one of the largest numbers of LEAD classes in the system, where up to 750 of the 1,500 students are English learners.
Among those 750 students, 63 have exceptional needs and are learning in five “LEAD” classes of 12 to 14 students each. Many new arrivals from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea or Ukraine have suffered interruptions or delays in schooling due to war, poverty or time spent in refugee camps.
Teachers work with interpreters and use a variety of visual and digital aids to help students learn at their own pace.
In providing new and evolving support to newcomers, Pitman explains that the CBE is also working to ensure staff are culturally responsive and trauma-informed through ongoing professional development and working alongside experts within the system and in the external community.
“Through our inclusive education team, our psychologists and community partners, we are working directly with those schools to provide information about what cultures are in a school and what supports are most meaningful according to experts who understand those cultural needs,” Pitman said . .
Over the past year, increased partnership with community groups now includes, for example, refugee and immigrant counseling through Kindred Family Services, which provides direct support in schools and in the community, wherever a family and students need it. .
“They are now in nine different schools with direct services to families and students,” Pitman said.
According to this year’s final enrollment data, 7,029 students were added to public schools at the end of September, with more being added every week.
That growth is a 5.4 percent increase from the previous year and double what CBE would make in a normal growth year, with newcomers being the main contributors to that increase.