Birmingham City Schools

How Birmingham City School Students Recovered Pandemic Learning Loss

Telkia Jones, a fifth grade teacher at Charles Brown Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama, high fives a student on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. A new report found Birmingham City Schools outpaced the nation for learning recovery from the pandemic. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Mark Sullivan expected to see reading scores decline after the pandemic. When he saw the first results in coming out of the pandemic, he was relieved to see student reading did not fall as much as he expected.

“But the math scores plummeted,” he said.

The next steps Birmingham officials took may have helped turn them around.

A new report from researchers at Stanford, Harvard and Dartmouth universities who analyzed test score results from 8,000 school districts in 30 states found that students had recovered around a third of the original pandemic learning loss for math. But the report also found achievement gaps are widening, with recovery slower for poor students in contrast to non-poor students in the same district.

The authors found that Alabama districts broadly followed national trends. High-poverty school districts lost over half a grade level in math, while high-income districts lost little ground or improved. Pandemic losses were measured by comparing achievement in Spring 2019 and Spring 2022, while recovery was measured by comparing achievement in Spring 2022 and Spring 2023.

Pamela Williams, interim chief academic and accountability officer of Birmingham City Schools, said that math is progressive, so missing half of a grade level impacts future learning. A student missing half a grade level in third grade in multiplication, she said, will have trouble doing fractional reasoning in fourth grade.

“By the time you get to fractional reasoning, you’re in fifth grade, so now you may even be more than half a year behind,” she said.

But Alabama is the only state in the report where the average math score exceeds the pre-pandemic level. And high-poverty districts in Alabama led recovery efforts.

Birmingham, where 87.26% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, made up nearly half a grade level equivalent in one year in math.

Nationally, students made up about a third of the learning loss in math, according to the report.

Extra Time

A lot of that growth has come from more time in school, said Sullivan, who looked for ways to increase that time. The superintendent said district personnel realized there was a lot of incidental reading in students’ lives but not incidental math.

At first, Sullivan said, wanted to have year-round school. He received pushback from many groups.

“The parents were like ‘No,’ and teachers were ‘No,’ and the teachers’ union were ‘No’ and the kids were like ‘Absolutely not,’” he said.

Birmingham City Schools eventually settled on a program of nine-week school periods, with a one-week period of instruction for students who failed a class or were reading below grade level. The interim weeks also had clubs, including some dedicated to computer programming and others to Lego construction.

Sullivan said they started with 1,800 students coming to the interim weeks. The program now has 7,000 students enrolled.

Williams said they use data in meetings with principals to track failures and achievement rates. They make determinations about what students need to succeed and they’re working now to do more with student interest.

Sullivan wants to have 10,000 students enrolled in the next enrichment session scheduled for March session, or about half of the nearly 20,000 students enrolled in the district.

“I think that’s a testament to the parents’ commitment to education and their belief in what we’re doing,” he said.

Sullivan said the district also focused on students most vulnerable to the pandemic losses. The district partnered with a Harvard group called Breakthrough Results to work with their third-graders in math. Those students had been in kindergarten or first grade at the start of the pandemic.

Poverty, however, weighs heavily on student achievement. The report said that even in the states where average achievement is higher than pre-pandemic, many of the poorest districts still have scores below 2019 levels of achievement. The report cited Montgomery Public Schools, saying students there were half a grade level below 2019 levels in math.

A request for comment was sent to MPS spokesperson Jade Jones on Thursday.

According to the report, the relationship between achievement loss and district-level poverty is “somewhat flatter” in the years 2019 through 2023 than 2019 through 2022 on account of gains made by high-poverty districts.

Birmingham City Schools has also made a concerted effort to incorporate social and emotional learning into their lesson plans. Sullivan said they lost eight staff members during the pandemic and two at an elementary school, so the fear of the coronavirus was present.

Sullivan said that they needed to make sure that teachers felt safe about teaching during the pandemic and the kids coming back to school safely. Then, once people felt safe, they equipped teachers with the skills to identify student weaknesses.

While people imagine students throwing desks, Sullivan said that identifying students struggling with mental health is seeing kids who are withdrawn, depressed or anxious and “those things are not readily easy to notice or identify.”

So they trained teachers in identifying that and a called RethinkEd.

Williams said that students are provided a lesson from that platform each day where teachers can engage in discussion with students and check in with them.

Federal relief funds contributed to the social and emotional learning Sullivan said they just received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for providing restorative practices for students to continue some of that work after the federal recovery funds expire.

“We are actively looking at other funding sources to continue those programs, and then we’re also being really strategic about how we are identifying what we need to move forward with,” Sullivan said. “Because we will have limited funds.”

Sullivan said the district still has work to do, and not even the pre-pandemic scores were not at the level he wanted.

“We got a long way to go, but I think we’ve got the right plan,” he said. “We’ve got the right people in place to move this work.”

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