As a student success manager for the RISE Network, I have had a front-row seat to the resilience and creativity school communities have shown over the past 18-months. The efforts made by educators during the pandemic to not only reach students but also partner with their families have been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

Karleka Norman

Research shows Grade 9 on-track status — whether a student earns enough credits their first year of high school to promote on time to the next grade level — is the best predictor of whether a student will graduate from high school within four years. Overcoming tremendous obstacles, educators I partner with found many students achieving beyond target on-track rates by the end of the school year. How they did that is a remarkable achievement we will be learning from for years.

At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, students and educators resumed teaching and learning in an uncertain world. Many of them found remarkable ways to be successful despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. The recently published RISE Network ‘Plugged In: Challenge Normal’ report highlights several of these success stories of education during COVID-19.

My job is to lead a team of On-Track Coordinators in high schools in Hartford, Stamford, and Norwalk while supporting a larger network of On-Track Coordinators across six additional schools in five other districts across the state. Each of these On-Track Coordinators work with a group of 60 Grade 9 students who are most at risk to provide targeted mentoring and coaching to help them stay on track as they navigate the transition into high school. By embracing new practices in collaboration with students, families, and other educators, On-track Coordinators in the schools where I work found that in some schools up to 98 percent of the students they support were on track at the end of the school year.

As information about the impact of COVID-19 on education outcomes over the past year continues to come in, it is important that we understand where students are at for the upcoming school year this Fall.

This fall, as uncertainty still surrounds us, we want to hit the ground running. We’ve always known students have unique strengths and needs. What the pandemic has taught us is that these differences should be a starting place for supporting all students to succeed.

Here are a few things that stood out to me as being crucial to student success this past year and will play a critical role going forward:

  • Equitable Grading: Grading in an equitable manner has proven to accelerate students’ learning. Equitable grading means taking all factors contributing to a student’s learning when deciding on their level of achievement. We have learned that traditional grading can often be more reflective of how a teacher grades than what a student learned. In the past year, by using equitable grading practices like offering students multiple ways to show they have learned a skill or rethinking how different aspects of a student’s performance (e.g. attendance, homework, assessments) are weighted, a larger percentage of students stayed on track or were able to get back on track by the end of the school year.
  • Family Engagement: I always knew parents and families were an important part of the process. We learned this past year how to better work alongside them to the benefit of their child, the student. We often found that developing the relationship with the parent or other caretaker first was important. ‘How do you best like to be contacted? What is your schedule like?’ are critical questions to get established from day one. We need to develop those relationships from the start and continue to invest in them throughout the school year through regular communication and resources to help keep them involved.
  • Student Outreach: Through initiatives during the 2020-2021 school year, such as porch visits in Middletown, Saturday Sessions in Stamford, and Spring Break sessions throughout the state, RISE found that taking unique approaches to engaging students paid off. Porch visits were used to reengage students whose attendance was slipping. The Saturday Sessions brought remote students into the classroom on the weekend for in-person learning and resulted in a clear improvement. Spring Break Sessions provided a similar opportunity for remote and in-person students, giving students a chance to catch up to in-person students by coming in for additional support during their vacation.
  • New Technologies: One of the most exciting developments of what was a difficult year was the embrace of new technology to assist in the job of teaching. In many of our schools, we used TalkingPoints, a two-way multilingual family engagement platform that helps teachers and families to stay connected via text message. This app makes it so that important messages do not get literally lost in translation. We also used new technology to schedule college visits and time with school counselors.

Many of our On-Track Coordinators ended the 2021 school year with more students they work with on-track than the previous year. It is remarkable to think of what students, parents, and educators accomplished by pivoting and facing the new normal.

As we welcome students back to school post-pandemic we must take the lessons of the past year with us.  While these programs may just seem like good practice, we understand there are a number of barriers and potential obstacles that require dedication and creativity to overcome.

The next several months will present new challenges, but we bring to them new experiences, new tools, and a new outlook.

Karleka Norman is a Student Success Manager for the Connecticut RISE Network.