Rising senior Agianna Jenkins often does her homework in Manchester Public Library. Participating in Flight School last summer helped her succeed in school. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

A move from East Hartford to Manchester doesn’t sound drastic on paper. The Hartford County towns are about half a dozen miles apart — a roughly 10 minute drive.

But if you’re 13 years old and finishing eighth grade, the change can be rough. 

Several reports have analyzed the social, academic and physical impacts on students transitioning to high school as they navigate new campuses and classes and develop new relationships. Around the country, more students fail ninth grade than any other grade, and some students enter high school up to three years behind grade level, putting them at risk of disengagement, low grades or dropping out, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The pandemic heightened the difficulty of the transition with mandated remote learning and a lack of social interaction. Once schools were back in session, students were thrown another curveball: having to navigate buildings they were unfamiliar with and learn from — and alongside — people they had never met in person. 

The circumstances were enough to turn a great student into one lacking credits needed to graduate. This was the case for Agianna Jenkins, who was used to being on the honor roll but ended up falling between the gaps in the transition to high school after moving to a new school and struggling to make new friends.

“From being online to going back to school, a lot of the work — I just wouldn’t understand it. … It was hard seeing my grades slowly dropping. I was too scared to ask for help. … At that point, I said there was nothing I could do about it, so I gave up,” Agianna, who’s now 17, said. “Throughout my freshman and sophomore year, the only time people talked to me was to tell me that my grade was low, or I was missing this, or my attendance is like this, or I’m not going to pass this — which is like, if every single time someone’s talking to you they’re telling you what you’re doing wrong — you’re going to believe that’s all you can do.”

After her sophomore year, though, Agianna was invited to participate in a summer program called Flight School. Hosted by Manchester Public Schools, the program goes beyond traditional summer school courses to reengage students and help with credit recovery.

Now a senior at Manchester High School, Agianna is thriving and set to graduate next year.

Since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across Connecticut and the rest of the country have been scrambling to combat learning loss and disengagement as most school districts in the state remain under pre-pandemic performance levels for both students with and without high needs.

“These performance index changes translate to declines in student proficiency of around 6 to 8 percentage points in English language arts and mathematics and around 4 percentage points in science,” the state’s Department of Education reported earlier this year. 

Manchester’s initiative is just one of 19 summer learning programs highlighted by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents that are trying to reverse learning loss. Other programs include an EMR Certification in Bristol, Science of Summer Program in North Haven and Early College High School Summer Enrichment Program in Waterbury. 

Another report, published in the Nature Human Behavior journal, said 95% of the world’s student population was affected by school closures, and not only was learning progress “substantially” slow, but students lost about 35% of a school year’s worth of learning during the pandemic. 

Earlier this year, Connecticut announced a plan to spend $10 million of COVID-19 recovery funds to create a math tutoring program for students in sixth through ninth grades in hopes of bridging the rift. Gov. Ned Lamont and the state’s Department of Education also invested $11.5 million into summer enrichment programs in early March to “connect students [to] … summer camps, child care centers, and other similar programs, with a priority for those in communities that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

Beyond statewide initiatives and funding, local districts have had to turn on their creative thinking caps. 

Innovative programs

Flight School, which was first launched two years ago, allows around 45 students in Manchester who are at least one year behind in their coursework to participate in a 3 1/2-week program to earn up to eight high school credits. 

Once accepted into the program, students are divided into three cohorts of about 15 kids and take two classes a day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

The program helped Agianna, who was missing several credits and off course to graduate on time, not only to get back on track, but she is now enrolled in several Advanced Placement and Honors classes for the upcoming school year. 

“[At Flight School, the teachers] would tell me what I was doing right and they thought I could do more right. It made me feel encouraged. It helped me look at school like, ‘If I came here for three weeks, four weeks, I can do it the whole year. It’s not hard,’” Agianna said, adding that she also developed relationships with other students.

Students participating at Flight School, a weeks long summer program held by Manchester Public Schools to help off-track high schoolers recover credits. Amanda Navarra / Manchester Public Schools

“It was really comforting to not feel like I was the only person going through this,” Agianna said. “The people I talked to there, I still talk to. … One of my friends, Taniya, we’re really, really close. She does my hair. I hang out with her a lot. It was really nice to make a friend like her because we had similar situations, and it was nice to finally connect with someone and be like ‘OK. Someone gets it.’”

The courses are untraditional, including culinary science and data science classes and another called “Struggle to Strength,” which focuses on English, performing arts and health and wellness. 

“That class is co-taught by two very talented local music artists and producers, and [our students] record a podcast on something that they have had a personal experience with that relates to health or wellness,” said Amanda Navarra, who works as an innovation and research strategist at the district and helped design the program.

“They do a lot of research to come up with the content of that podcast. They have to write a script, they have to record it. They have to edit. They also write a personal narrative that takes something in their lives that they have previously seen as a challenge [and] how it goes wider — how it helped them grow, how it helped them be strong, how it helped them in some way [and] changed their perspective on the world —maybe change how they go into their classes,” Navarra added. 

In the culinary science class, one of the projects students engage in is studying heat conduction and building a solar still, which is a device that collects fresh water through solar energy. Students use those teachings to make s’mores then need to analyze why their project worked and explain scientific principles that allowed them to make the treats, Navarra said. 

The data science class combines math, social studies and technology to participate in a “Big Inquiry Project,” where a student chooses a topic they’re interested in, then “follows the numbers.” At the end of the research, students must present their findings.

The district has spent three years creating a more fine-tuned balance between fun and traditional learning, finding the right cohort sizes and using student input about what they wanted to get out of their education.

“I wanted to create a program that kind of reignited joy for learning, that allowed students to acquire a lot of credits so that they could come in and be on track to build positive connections to other students and staff members. And we wanted learning to feel purposeful,” Navarra said. “So we just dug in, and we said, ‘What are our pain points in school? What do we like about school? What do we not like? How do we feel about how we’re graded in school? How do we feel about work?’”

Students participating at Flight School, a weeks long summer program held by Manchester Public Schools to help off-track high schoolers recover credits. Amanda Navarra / Manchester Public Schools

Last year, 42 students enrolled in the program and 40 successfully completed it. An analysis of 33 students who did not transfer out of the district showed that attendance averaged around 60% prior to Flight School. Only two students had attendance rates of 90%. After attending the program, 30 of the students improved their attendance: 12 students were at school 90% of the time, and the average rate increased to around 78%. 

“Three students more than doubled their attendance rate this school year; 11 had a 50% increase or better,” Navarra said. “The results are promising. There are clearly a number of students who continued to struggle with attendance this year, but remember these were all students who were at least a year behind in credits, so they’re some of our most vulnerable and at-risk learners.”

The program began this year’s session on Wednesday and will continue through August 4. Navarra hopes the results will carry into the upcoming school year and that the program could expand.  

“I would love to open it to students and other districts, even, but I think for now, I want to make sure it wasn’t just something in the water last year, because it was transformational for students and for staff truly,” Navarra said. “Our students all wrote reflections as part of the process, and the things that they wrote will bring tears to your eyes. And some of the stories that staff will tell you will bring tears to your eyes. So, I want to see if the model is what really works.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.