SOUTH BEND — For four weeks this past fall, between 70 and 80 South Bend students have made the trip to Brown Community Learning Center.
Their day starts at 9 a.m. and students cycle through classes like math, English, and choir.
In the morning, Tamara Rose leads students through a lesson on fractions, greatest common factors and least common multiples. About an hour later, the students move down the hall to draw straight, curved and jagged lines into the background of self-portraits.
Their classes are a little smaller and the hallways a little quieter, but on this particular morning – a Saturday – school is very much in session.
“For the past year or so that we’ve had COVID … a lot of them didn’t show up for elearning,” Rose said. “The stuff that they’ve missed out on, they’re learning it here.”
Brown Community Learning Center is home to one of two Saturday school sites in South Bend looking to bring students extra help this school year after the pandemic stunted academic growth for students across the country.
Brown draws second through eighth graders from Clay International Academy, Dickinson Fine Arts Academy and LaSalle Academy. Students from Jefferson Traditional School, Lincoln Elementary and Madison S.T.E.A.M. Academy have also met in a separate location, said Hughes Valmond, a program coordinator.
A majority of students in Brown’s Saturday Accelerator program were recommended by principals or teachers, but anyone without a recommendation who wanted the extra help was welcome.
The program runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Elementary students meet with the same teacher for much of the day, while middle school students rotate through four different classes.
“Within that time, we can get a lot done,” Valmond said. “They’re able to get that individualized attention they can’t get during the week.”
The Accelerator seeks to provide extra in-person support for students after schools were closed in spring 2020 and disruptions continued into much of the 2020-21 year.
The task at hand won’t be easy. Students across the state showed low performance in standardized exams this spring.
Only 28.6% of third through eighth graders taking Indiana’s ILEARN exam this spring were found proficient in two key subject areas, English/language arts and math. That’s compared to 2019’s state average of 37.1% – a score that was already low due to the introduction of a new ILEARN test.
But, in South Bend, proficiency rates fell below state averages. Only 7.5% of third through eighth graders tested proficient in both English/language arts and math this year.
In the state’s third grade reading exam, IREAD-3, which is generally considered a more reliable test, 53.7% of South Bend students passed this spring compared to 68.7% in 2019.
State education officials, in a discussion of spring test scores, said learning recovery for some Hoosier students could take anywhere from three to five years.
‘Keep the spark of learning’
South Bend’s Saturday Accelerator draws educators from Clay IA, Dickinson and LaSalle, meaning some students are paired with their teacher of record who can easily identify where kids struggled during the week and tailor Saturday lessons accordingly.
Teachers say they are working on core concepts like math and reading comprehension, but also in-person learning skills students might have missed over the last year like practicing clear handwriting and maintaining focus in the classroom.
“We decided that we needed to bring in a novel to get them to really work on some of those reading skills and to help them work on staying focused on actually having a paper book in hand,” said Tracy Matlock, a sixth grade teacher from Clay IA. “That’s something a lot of them have lost during this pandemic by having that computer in their face all the time.”
Valmond said Saturday Accelerator coordinators looked at students’ math and science scores on benchmark NWEA exams to gauge where students are at and pinpoint specific areas for instruction.
Teachers did give an assessment early in the Saturday program, coordinators said, but students are not graded for their work during the out-of-school meetings.
“It’s structured in time and what we want teachers to focus on but other than that, we don’t want kids to be scared to come,” said Caila Lindsey, a co-coordinator working with Valmond. “We just want them to come in and get that extra help.”
The program, which serves a high number of fine arts students, also offers a mix of opportunities outside of the traditional core reading and math subjects.
In one classroom, students might learn about great American poets and musicians like Langston Hughes and Cab Calloway. In another they might experiment with making movie trailers on a greenscreen.
“I hear a lot of kids say I’m going to Saturday school and it’s going to be fun and that’s not what I was expecting,” Lindsey said. “It’s less structured than normal school and they get to see their friends again. I think it gets them into a positive environment they may not have.”
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For teachers, the Saturday school sessions can be a low-stress environment to try out new lessons or instructional techniques with a smaller group of students before changing up plans in the traditional classroom.
“It’s been a really weird couple of years,” said Maxie Bolden III, who teaches classes on technology and preparing for college and careers. “The main thing is to keep the spark of learning. Give them something they can enjoy.”
And, although Saturday Accelerator instructors strive to keep a light environment, that doesn’t mean academic goals take a back seat.
Rose, a sixth grade math teacher, said her students at Dickinson, including several Saturday school regulars, recently threw an end-of-semester party to celebrate meeting their NWEA benchmark goals.
Matlock, from Clay IA, said it’s clear here students show up on Saturday to learn.
“These students that are sitting here in front of us, they’re willing to work,” Matlock said. “They’re not here just for baby-sitting. They’re here to actually work.”
Building a model
Valmond said he hopes the program can be a model for schools across the South Bend district.
The Saturday Accelerator team, which is breaking now for the winter holidays, plans to reach twice as many students in nearly three times the number of weekend meetings next semester to gear up for the state’s annual spring assessment window.
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While student participation is expected to grow, the co-coordinators say the Accelerator’s mission stays the same; to provide small class sizes and a variety of learning opportunities.
Valmond said the program hopes to add dance classes in the spring and invite local high school and collegiate performers to meet with students. Bolden said he wants to experiment with podcasting.
Class sizes should never grow beyond 16 students to a teacher, coordinators said. On the last Saturday before winter break, groups were small with three to four students in each room.
After just the first few weeks, Rose says she’s seeing a difference in her weekday classroom.
“A couple of my girls came last Saturday and we were doing order of operations with exponents,” Rose said. “They were showing it to other kids when we got back to school. They put a problem on the board and they were like, ‘You’re supposed to bring the exponent down. I learned this in Saturday school.’”
Her students are leaving with not only a better grasp on the academics, Rose says, but a change in mindset, too.
“It makes them a little more confident,” Rose said. “Even with the girl, she was so confident, saying, ‘I get it now. This is what you do.’”