Teachers set priorities following long absences

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By Shay Maunz
Charleston Daily Mail Staff

CHARLESTON, WV -- They're back.

After a solid month in which they spent only three days in school — first because of Christmas break, then winter weather conditions and a chemical leak that tainted the region's drinking supply — Kanawha County students are finally back in school, after a two-hour delay.

In all, 12 days of school have been canceled so far this year — a drastic increase over a typical year. Last year Kanawha County only had to cancel three schooldays.

As of 6 p.m. Thursday, Kanawha County was planning for a two-hour delay today because of extreme cold in the forecast.

State and county officials haven't yet given word on what will happen to the school calendar through the remainder of the year, so teachers and schools are working on the assumption that they won't get any more time.

Across the county, they're taking another look at the lessons they had planned for the second semester of school — condensing, prioritizing and marking things off their list.

And perhaps most tellingly, they're teaching some things all over again.

Before the holiday break, Kelly Plutro's senior English class at Herbert Hoover High School was working on a unit about short stories.

On Wednesday, the first thing she did — after talking to her students about the importance of taking all of their time together especially seriously in the coming months — was review short stories.

"We did some re-teaching," she said. "It's been so long, they've forgotten a lot of the things we did just before break. So we took some time to remind them."

The break, practically a solid month long, left students slightly behind where they were before Christmas, teachers said. It's similar to what happens during summer vacations, a phenomenon known as "summer learning loss" or "brain drain."

On average, when students return to school after summer break, typically around three months long, they perform one month behind where they were when school let out in the spring.

The impact is greatest on low-income students, who tend to lose ground in reading, as outlined in a 2011 report on summer learning from the Wallace Foundation. Their high-income peers tend to lose ground in math along with them, but often make gains in reading — the result of being read to at home.

"Most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative," the report reads. "Over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap."

To cope with and counter those losses, teachers are doing a lot of the same things they do after summer vacations, like reviewing old lessons and re-teaching as needed.

They're also working to condense the material they need to cover through the rest of the semester.

Lindsay Lucas, a 4th grade teacher at Piedmont Elementary, spent much of Thursday reviewing things her students had already done. From there, she plans to shift all of the things she'd planned to do onto a different schedule.

They'll still cover everything she'd planned to cover; they'll just do it a little differently.

"We're just kind of going to push things around," she said. "We'll still get to everything, we'll just do it a little differently."

Westests, the annual standardized tests taken by West Virginia students, will still come at the end of the year, but Lucas isn't very worried about the impact the extended break will have on her kids' scores.

"I feel like we study for Westest all year," she said. "We do start to focus on it in January and especially in March, but it is what it is. We're just going to try to buckle down and I think we'll get through it fine."

Plutro, on the high school level, is more worried about the AP test she'll be administering in the spring. While the dates students take Westest can shift — the test has to be administered within 30 days of the last day of school — the AP test's date is firm. She'll give that test May 8.

She thinks her students will be prepared for it, but it will take more scrambling to get them ready than in most years. Plutro has been at Herbert Hoover since 1994 and said this is the longest unplanned break from school she's seen in all her years of teaching.

Amy McVicker, head of the special education department at Herbert Hoover, said her approach has been to lead by example.

"My thing is that I have to stay focused," she said. "If they see that I'm focused, then maybe I can get them to focus."

McVicker went back through her lesson plans for the coming weeks and months to eliminate some things. But she, like most teachers, is determined to get through the material without striking out major portions of things. For many students, that will mean more work at school, and more homework.

Jason Crist teaches business at Herbert Hoover and said that some parts of his yearly plan are set in stone. He always does a lesson on taxes during tax season, for example.

Other things can be shifted more easily, he says, and teachers usually have a good sense for what can go and what needs to stay.

"It's workable," he said. "It depends on the topic and the teacher, but regardless of the content area a teacher knows what's most important."