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Admins: Billings students years behind after pandemic-related school disruptions

Summer school starting to take shape
Posted at 11:13 PM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 01:13:45-05

BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 administrators are planning to offer at least two years of summer school to help students in kindergarten through 12th grade catch up from COVID-19 pandemic-related learning loss, trustees heard at a Monday school board meeting.

“We see some significant differences in student achievement from the live platform to the remote platform in the data that we’ll address and that is concerning. Absolutely it is concerning for the planning for 2021 and 2022," said Greg Upham, Billings school superintendent.

This summer would be the first time Billings has had a school district-wide summer school program for K-8th grade. There have been efforts in the past to offer small summer learning programs at targeted schools, but nothing on a district-wide scale has been done in Billings.

Brenda Koch, executive director of school leadership support, was tasked with organizing the elementary K-5th grade summer school program. She said a steering committee made up of 14 teachers and administrators, along with a sub committee of 19 kindergarten to 5th grade teachers, are helping to craft the program.

Koch said some students that have been learning remotely for the school year have come back to in-person class for limited times in the day for what's been dubbed a "community classroom." One of the teachers working with the community classroom students said the gaps in learning are tremendous, Koch said.

“I had one of our academic coaches come and visit with me the other day and she said, ‘Brenda, these aren’t just gaps, these are canyons and I have never seen anything like it,’" Koch said.

Details are still very much in progress, but Koch said the plan is to offer kindergarten to 5th grade district-wide summer school for six weeks between June 14 through July 22. Students would go to school for four hours per day from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. to learn reading and math. Students would have some recess time worked in and be served breakfast and a lunch to take home.

The goal is to offer summer school at every Billings elementary and middle school, but staffing and funding will determine how wide-spread the program will be. Teachers and administrators are still working on metrics for deciding which students are eligible, but hope to be sending letters to families at the start of March to begin enrollment.

Middle school summer classes are similarly uncharted waters for Billings School District 2. Randy Russell, another executive director of school leadership, was tasked with organizing the middle school summer classes. He said he's working with a steering committee made up of 13 middle school teachers and administrators to craft the program.

Russell said the goal is to have the middle school program work in tandem with the elementary summer school to accommodate families with students in multiple grades.

The preliminary plan is to have middle school summer classes focus on English, math, and science daily with small class sizes of 15. Students could come to class for only one subject per day if needed.

Russell said middle school summer school is planned to run June 14 to Jul 22 and educate students Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Students would also be served breakfast and a lunch to take home. Metrics haven't yet been developed for who to invite to the classes, but administrators hope to be making calls and mailing letters to prospective students by the first of April. The goal again is to have the program offered at all Billings middle schools, but availability depends on staffing and funding.

Upham said high school summer school through the credit recovery program will be expanded this year, based on an increased number of students failing classes. In the past, only core classes have been offered in the summer. In addition, this year, district staff are hoping to offer elective classes over the summer at the Lincoln Center.

A lot of the summer school program depends on how much second-round COVID federal relief money makes its way to Billings School District 2 via the state government. The district expects to receive about $12.8 million, but the total could fluctuate depending on what happens with enrollment counts at the Office of Public Instruction in Helena.

Education officials at the state level are still deciding how to allocate money across the state's public schools for next year, when many of the larger districts saw losses in enrollment, said Craig Van Nice, chief financial officer for the school district. A majority of a Montana school district's money comes from the state based on enrollment numbers.

Upham said Billings was not alone among AA districts in losing students. The 2021 budget was created based on an enrollment of 17,006 students in the district. It turned out 674 fewer students than expected were enrolled this year, meaning the district could lose $2 million next year, Van Nice said.

With whatever coronavirus relief money the district gets, Upham said it will go toward summer school opportunities for the next two years, more resources and support in the classroom and possible remote learning platform.

"Tutorial support, intervention support, extended opportunities for high school students to get credits that they need, additional interventionists in elementary and middle school. Anything that we can do in the school day in the traditional format to increase student support for students to catch up," Upham said.

At the top of the board meeting, trustees unanimously extended the superintendent's contract into 2024 after giving him a glowing performance review. One change in the contract this time is that a salary freeze requested by Upham in the 2020-21 school year has not carried over. He won't be repaid the wages lost when he chose to forgo his salary increase in 2020.

Upham's salary will rise to $178,000 annually at the end of June. He is the third-highest paid superintendent in Montana, and Billings is the largest school district.

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