Bridge Learning Gaps With Afterschool Interventions

Act fast to establish a program that addresses unfinished learning.

Topics: Afterschool/Summer Learning, Curriculum and Instruction

I began my journey as an elementary school principal at the start of the 2019–2020 school year. Midway through the year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and—as with most schools across the country—our students engaged in virtual learning for part of the school year. Students eventually returned to in-person learning, but all were impacted by unfinished learning.

Over time, our teachers grew concerned as gaps in student learning became more pronounced. We began to feel hopeless because so much was outside of our control. We figured out that it might take years to close those gaps, so rather than waiting for things to return to “normal,” my staff took it upon themselves to control what they could control.

Motivated by the idea that students deserved the help they needed immediately, I approached my administrative team with the idea of having teachers run an afterschool intervention program to provide direct support to groups of students. And we got to work.

We identified students who needed help by analyzing schoolwide and formative data based on ELA and math learning and grouped students strategically based on the data. Still doing our best to minimize additional COVID–19 exposures for students and staff, we were able to provide interventions and support for the students who needed it most, when they needed it.

A New Model

We still have a lot of work to do to address the unfinished learning students experienced over the last few years, but the lesson I learned is that students get only one shot at an education, and they need us to do whatever it takes to help them be successful. While not perfect, our afterschool intervention program helped students, and it now serves as a model for improving student learning every day.

The following are the steps we took to implement the program:

  1. Establish a desired outcome through data analysis. As we analyzed the student data, the desired outcome became clear: to help students who exhibited struggles due to several months of missed core instruction. Identifying them and which strands were missing was relatively easy, but identifying their needs would take more work.

    Engage your staff in grade-level and schoolwide data chats to dig into the data and break down each standard. It takes time, but once you identify patterns in the data, you can consider how you’ll address the root causes of any problem of practice.

  1. Prepare for implementation. Since the program was slated to occur outside of the school day, staff needed additional compensation for their planning, preparation, and implementation time. I worked with my administrative team and secretary to identify a source of funding for compensation and additional supplies. Some districts might still have money available for this from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, but I suggest your team work with its central office to identify a funding source or write a grant proposal to cover the expenses. One of our goals was to make the program available to students at no cost.

    With pandemic fatigue weighing on my staff, I thought it might be difficult to convince teachers to deliver interventions, but they embraced the challenge. We staffed the program on Tuesdays and Thursdays for one hour immediately after school. We set the duration of the interventions at four weeks to allow us to intervene with more students.

  1. Monitor progress. Teachers helped reverse-engineer a measurable, time-bound intervention. Our curriculum featured intervention resources, and we used them to our advantage when determining desired outcomes and designing the lessons and activities.

    The teachers and the school’s multi­tiered system of support team then met to analyze students’ progress and make decisions on next steps. Some students responded well to the program and were allowed to exit, making room for other students. Some students needed additional intervention and support and stayed on for another round of the program.

Lessons Learned

Our district had invested heavily in data-driven instruction prior to the pandemic, so my team was able to move quickly through this process—and my teachers and assistant principal Teresa Strickling deserve a lot of the credit for the speed and effectiveness of the program. They learned a lot in the process: Teachers engaged in deep data dives, had rich discussions about alignment of skills and standards, and found out how important it is to discuss learning expectations outside their current teaching assignments.

The program presented a few challenges. We think students would have benefited even more from an increase in program frequency to four days per week. We also found that younger learners (grades 2–3) had limited stamina to be successful in the program, so teachers built in a short break before their lessons.

Consider the demographics of the school you serve. Do students need a healthy afterschool snack or access to transportation home after the program ends? These might add costs that you would need to include in your budget. But our job is to provide the best educational experience possible for our students.

Garth Cupp is principal of Kyrene Monte Vista Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona.