Richard Evans makes his way through rows of his students in his third grade classroom, stooping to pick up an errant pencil and answering questions above the din of chairs sliding on hardwood floors.
The desks, once spread apart to fight COVID-19, are back together. Masks cover just a couple of faces. But the pandemic maintains an unmistakable presence.
Look no further than the blue horseshoe-shaped table in the back of the room where Evans calls a handful of students back for extra help in reading — a pivotal subject for third grade — at the end of each day.
In a year that is a high-stakes experiment on making up for missed learning, this strategy — assessing individual students’ knowledge and tailoring instruction to them — is among the most widely adopted in American elementary schools. In his classroom of 24 students, each affected differently by the pandemic, Evans faces the urgent challenge of having them all read well enough to succeed in the grades ahead.
Here is how he has tackled it.
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“What sound does ‘-er’ make?’” Evans asks 9-year-old Ke’Arrah Jessie, who focuses through glasses on the page. She puts “hit” and “ter” together to make “hitter.”
Next to her, a boy takes a turn. He pronounces “high” as “hig.” Evans grabs a pen and jots down “night” and other “igh” words for a sidebar phonics refresher on the letter grouping. Meantime, the rest of the class reads on their own. While some page through below-grade-level readers, others plunge into advanced chapter books.
Most of these students were sent home as kindergartners in March 2020. Many spent all of first grade learning remotely from home full- or part-time. Even after schools reopened full time for second grade, COVID-related obstacles remained: masking and distancing rules that prevented group work, quarantining that sent kids home for a week without warning, and young children by then unaccustomed to — and unhappy about — full weeks of school rules.
Ke’Arrah, who likes math and wants to be a police officer, remembers the pull of her nearby toys as she tried to stay focused on her on-screen teacher.
“She was talking about boring stuff,” Ke’Arrah says. Last year’s transition back to in-person school was rocky, her mother said. She finished behind in math and reluctant to read.
Midway through her second stint in third grade, Ke’Arrah shows progress. Martin has passed her love of the Junie B. Jones series of books to Ke’Arrah, and the pair read them together at bedtime. Small moments become reading lessons, too.
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While many students are behind, Evans also referred more candidates than ever — five — for the school’s honors program because of their advanced scores on early assessments.
He pulled aside students who were reading well above grade level as the year began and explained they might not get as much one-on-one time with him, something he had never done before. That has allowed him to double up on the time he could spend helping other students to catch up, working with some groups twice or three times a week. The advanced readers spend that time reading and working together.
In Niagara Falls, about one in four people live in poverty, and 80% of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged, state data shows. Despite swarms of tourists to its namesake falls, the Rust Belt city has been scarred by an exodus of heavy industry and population that began in the 1960s.
Districts like Atlanta have sought to address learning losses by adding time to the school day. Others, like Washington, D.C., have pursued “high-impact” tutoring. Niagara Falls City Schools have doubled down on remedial work and differentiated learning, customizing students’ lessons to keep each student moving forward. The district has used federal pandemic relief money to put 12 reading specialists to work with first graders in its eight elementary schools, Superintendent Mark Laurrie said.
The two had just slowly worked through a phonics worksheet that had the student circle words that began with the same letter as pictures. In one problem, “candy,” “open” and “after” followed a picture of an ant. “Open?” guessed the fidgeting student.
In a matter of weeks, the boy went from knowing just 11 sight words — common words like “because” and “about” that students should instantly recognize — to 66 of the 75 on the district’s third grade list.
“I want to be able to read chapter books, and I want to read big old dictionaries!” the boy said after a one-on-one tutoring session that had him working on what sounds letters make when together, like “sp,” and “sn.”
Then, midway through the school year, the child stopped staying after school. Evans said his student lost interest; without a parent’s nudging, there is only so much he can do.
Earlier in the year, the child’s mother had described pandemic remote learning as fraught. The family had internet connection issues, and it was difficult to schedule school sessions around her work as a nursing home aide.
“I have a younger daughter at home and it was just a mess. She’s screaming. It was just a whole thing,” she said by phone.
When the tutoring stopped, she did not respond to follow-up calls or texts.
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Ke’Arrah leapfrogged from a bottom level to the upper middle — to the relief of her mother, whose decision to have her daughter repeat third grade appears to be paying off.