First published in the Sept. 8 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
It has been 2½ years since the coronavirus became a national emergency, and students across the nation are still reeling from the effects of months-long distance learning.
The La Cañada Unified School District wasn’t immune to the fallout from the pandemic with several students struggling in the core subjects of English and math, but administrators from each site took action to mitigate the impacts virtual instruction had on its students with what they call responsive teaching plans.
Principals from each school went before the Governing Board during a meeting Aug. 30 and presented academic performances during the 2021-22 academic year as well as areas of focus for the current year.
“Last year we implemented our first-year responsive teaching plans, and we learned a lot from those plans,” said Anais Wenn, LCUSD assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “This year we worked harder than last year and prepared new … responsive teaching plans.”
Though a large majority of LCUSD students either meet or exceed their grade level standards, the district reiterated its commitment to helping every single child, especially those who suffered a setback in their education as a result of distance learning — which commonly referred to as “learning loss.”
“We need every child to be scoring at grade level, so we’re focusing on every single child [who] is not making grade level expectations,” Wenn said.
After analyzing the performance of students receiving intervention instruction (a strategy educators use to help struggling pupils), it was evident that students in lower grade levels struggled with English, particularly writing.
At Palm Crest Elementary, only 24% of 6th grade intervention students met the target of increasing a level or higher on a four-point rubric for writing, and 54% of 4th graders met the target. The metrics were similar for 4th-grade intervention students at La Cañada Elementary with 44% not meeting their goals. Of the six 4th graders receiving intervention teaching at Paradise Canyon Elementary, only one met the target for writing progress.
“That just seems to be odd to me that we did not see gains in 4th grade like we did everywhere else in all three schools,” Board member Josh Epstein said.
Carrie Hetzel, principal at Paradise Canyon, responded to Epstein’s concern by saying that 4th grade “is a big jump in writing” because it requires students to deal with multiple paragraphs, which can be overwhelming and challenging for some. She added that remote instruction was also a major factor in students struggling with writing comprehension, an assertion that Wenn agreed with.
“When we were doing virtual instruction, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on writing,” Wenn said. “There was more trying to engage students and trying to keep them interested in wanting to come to the screen so they can learn.”
Some of those students were promoted to La Cañada High School 7-8, and Principal Jarret Gold assured the board that he has worked with the three elementary schools to determine students who may require intervention and additional attention.
Among 7th-graders, 83% of students met or exceeded standards in math and 89% did so in English, and the numbers were similar with 8th grade students, with 89% meeting or exceeding the standards in mathematics and 89% in English.
“I think there’s two highlights of having high data like that,” Gold said. “Our students are obviously performing extremely well, but it gives us an easier opportunity to target the students that aren’t.”
The high school students excelled the past year, with seniors averaging a 3.55 GPA in 2021 and students in grades 7-12 having fewer Ds and Fs than in 2019, before the pandemic.
“I see this data and I take comfort; I don’t have concern,” said LCHS Principal Jim Cartnal. “I have comfort that our kids are right where they need to be because our staff is together and we’re rallying in support of this difficult time that we’re all facing.”
Each school site has a plan to address the areas of concern, mainly in writing and math, but principals are also working on the social-emotional wellbeing of the students with specific goals. The elementary schools are looking to implement social-emotional learning lessons in the classroom and are committed to valuing diversity and inclusivity to increase the sense of belonging among students, as well as building trust between adults and children at each site.
At the high school, the principals stated one of their goals is to continue expanding programs — such as activities, assemblies and peer support — and services at the Wellness Center.
Nearly a month into the school year and educators are already working on implementing their strategies to help students academically and emotionally, and Superintendent Wendy Sinnette is confident that the goals can be achieved because administrators and teachers have a head start in establishing responsive teaching plans
“I think we’ll see incremental progress this year because everybody is right on top of the diagnostics and now scheduling the interventions and they’re starting really early,” Sinnette said.
Board Vice President Joe Radabaugh was pleased with the assessments and lauded school leaders for their work since the implementation of responsive teaching plans last year.
“I think it’s pretty darn impressive how far we’ve come since really putting in place the [plans],” Radabaugh said. “The fact that we’re wrapping around the year and doing it again and committing the funds and the resources is just an example of the La Cañada difference.
“We got continuous improvement, more to do, more to target, but I feel really good about what we’re seeing,” he added.