The last couple of years have been brutal on everyone, especially kids seeking an education. The lingering question is how the schools will handle the students that fell through the massive cracks brought on by the shift to virtual learning during the pandemic.

Dr. Michael Perry, the superintendent of Westmoreland County’s public schools had the principals make presentations to show just what was being done to help these at-risk students get caught up.

“In speaking to the principals, you’ve had a lot of discussion about things that have been done to help our children that had fallen behind or lost knowledge during the pandemic,” Perry explained. “The at-risk plans are specifically for children who need to be caught up and need that additional push to get them back on their grade level. These aren’t comprehensive plans for the schools, but they are specific for just helping students who have fallen behind a little bit.”

This part is focused on the first of the schools in the presentation: Cople Elementary, led by its principal, Leslie Steele, who laid out multi-faceted plan built around a literacy plan, instruction in math, project-based learning, tutoring, interventions, and social-emotional learning across the school.

“We identified several areas of focus as we continue to bridge gaps in learning and support our students’ social-emotional and academic growth,” Steele explained. “We are using social-emotional learning, small group construction, our tiered support system, extended planning, professional development, and project-based learning support closing learning gaps.”

The first of these, the social-emotional learning, is ostensibly about the creation of a safe and positive learning environment.

“We know we cannot support our students academically without tending to their social and emotional needs,” Steele continued. “Each day begins with a review of our SORE expectations and school-wide implementation of our second-step curriculum and Olweus bullying prevention programs.”

To that end, the students across all grades in the school participate in lessons and activities that, in the words of Steele, “emphasize behavioral expectations, good citizenship, and problem solving skills.”

Furthermore, the school counselors and administrators regularly meet with students to discuss their academics and goals. The teachers and staff in turn give holistic support to students to “ensure their success, socially and academically.”

Cople Elementary has also increased its language arts block of classes by anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes to put emphasis on decoding and language comprehension. This is to help the students participate in what Steele calls “phonological awareness,” or the ability to recognize and work with sounds in spoken language. The teachers and support staff, meanwhile, facilitate small group instruction to provide tiered support so that the students’ can be addressed individually.

The increase in staff also enables the school to have more students in the third through fifth grades with extra support as well as allowing the reading specialists to deliver more interventions.

“Last year, we provided students with reading kits to do over the summer,” Steele stated. “And this year we plan to do the same. Our goal is to increase family engagement and student interest in learning.”

In the realm of math, that block of the school day now lasts 75 minutes with a focus on small groups. The extra time also means there is more time for activities to help with retention, and the extra support staff also means more students are getting interventions and additional instruction.

Project-based learning, meanwhile, is meant to support reading abilities across all the content areas with an emphasis on nonfictional text. It also, according to Steele, “makes learning more engaging, relevant, and meaningful for our students. It also provides an opportunity for our struggling students to collaborate with classmates and exercise voice and choice in their learning.”

The small group instruction, meanwhile, is meant to allow the teachers to work more closely with the students in need of some extra academic support. The groups often get changed around based on metrics and data that teachers take a look at to identify areas of concern.

“We cannot emphasize enough how important the addition of more paraprofessionals has been,” Steele continued on. “It has enhanced our ability to provide support to our students.”

Additionally, the small-group instruction allows for more individualized instruction as the teachers assign activities and work to students via Canvas or other programs in order to tailor the instruction more towards that specific student.

Students that need additional support in reading and math, at least those at third grade and above, can also get tutoring two days of the week, allowing the teachers to provide remediation in the subjects. The students also take part in activities that support social-emotional learning.

“We are committed to learning and growing together professionally so that our students grow together academically and socially,” Steele noted. “We are confident that if we continue to provide solid tier-one instruction while facilitating effective tier-two and tier-three interventions with small group instruction, we will bridge the gaps in learning for our at-risk students and also support those students who continue to excel.”

Next week will include a rundown of the plans for Washington District Elementary.