The hallways hummed with the sounds of happy reunions, fist and elbow bumps and a bit of nervous energy as Spring Lake Park Schools welcomed students to a new school year in September. To students and teachers alike, it felt good to be here, at school . . . together.
While this school year may continue to be impacted by COVID-19, the energy in these first weeks is focused on transitioning out of pandemic learning. The range of experiences students have had – both positive and challenging – over the last 18+ months means educators are taking time to understand and meet each student where they are to support next steps.
“Accelerating learning and providing enrichment after more than a year of pandemic disruptions, supporting social and emotional well-being, and building and re-build community in our schools. . .this is the core work as we transition out of pandemic learning,” says Jeff Ronneberg, superintendent. “We’re off to a strong start.”
Supporting learning and well-being
More than 97 percent of students and staff are back learning in school buildings each day. Nearly 3 percent have chosen to stay with online learning models refined and now state approved as SLP Schools Online for grades K-12.
“Students have had a variety of different experiences during the pandemic,” says Hope Rahn, director of learning and innovation. “We must have a variety of approaches to support them in where they are right now – whether they’ve struggled or thrived during the last 18 months.”
Flexible and personalized support – to meet needs and provide enrichment - is in motion at all grade levels.
Flexible groupings of students and staff at all levels is helping to provide dedicated support to help students who have struggled. In the older grades, alternative learning teams (high school) and AIM (Achieve, Innovate and Motivate) teams at the intermediate and middle school and extra time in core content areas is helping students close any learning gaps.
Time built into each day to connect with others, build community and get additional help or explore interests helps students connect – or re-connect – with their spark in learning. Beyond the academic, social emotional development and support for student well-being is also at the forefront with a variety of proactive and reactive strategies.
“We know the pandemic has raised concerns about social and emotional development as well as mental health,” says Tony Mayer, director of student services. “The most important thing for our community to know is that we have staff – counselors, school psychologists, social workers and others – in each of our schools with expertise to help meet individual student needs.”
At the middle and high school level, counselors and deans are the “hub” for accessing student support services. They connect to the broader team (social workers, psychologists, others). At the elementary level, classroom teachers are the hub for referring students for specific supports.
Building – and re-building - community
Building community, in which each member feels they belong, is a piece of SLP’s vision that is even more imperative as this school year gets underway.
“Circumstances last year forced new ways of connecting and creating community,” says Jeff. “We have an opportunity now to re-imagine many of our pre-pandemic practices, learn from our experiences, and bring together ideas and practices to create something even more personalized.”
Kinder Camp for incoming kindergarteners provided an opportunity for our newest students to experience that first sense of belonging. Over three days in August, they practiced coming to school. They met teachers and staff, got to know their school buildings and learned and practiced school routines – all before the first day.
Meet and Greet is the evening each year when students traditionally learn who their teacher is and who their classmates are. Last year, those first connections happened over WebEx meetings or one-on-one phone calls.
As the fall approached, building leaders looked for ways to combine the experiences of the past few years to enhance the overall Meet and Greet experience. They asked, “how might we be as intentional as we can be in creating community and a sense of belonging.”
Meet and Greet opportunities provided a mash up. There was a combination of the traditional, last-week-of-summer, in-person building visits combined with opportunities for personalized connections and conversations – over WebEx or through phone calls – in the first weeks.
Conferences are next.
“What I really liked and families liked was how we did conferences during the pandemic,” says Angela Skauge, Westwood teacher. “It felt more personal, being able to meet on WebEx at a time convenient to them. It’s different than how we’ve done that at the middle school before with long line, not a lot of time to talk.”
Based on similar feedback from families and staff, each school has looked at how to move toward continuous connections between school and home to check in on student progress. The goals are personalized connections, flexibility in schedule and choice of format.
Investing in recovery . . . and innovation
Many of the academic and social-emotional supports unique to this time of transition are being supported by national and state COVID-19 relief funding – one-time dollars. Spring Lake Park Schools is using federal and state relief funding to support specific efforts in the near-term and also testing new innovations to bring into the district long-term.
COVID relief funds helped make Kinder Camp happen. They funded high school boot camp focused on the college application process, additional support teams at the middle and high school, career and college readiness programming, staffing for SLP Schools Online, additional health and safety-focused facility enhancements as well as other efforts throughout the district.
“We’ve been fortunate to operate a balanced budget for the last eight years. Not many districts can say that, and we’re grateful for it,” says Jeff. “We want to use these COVID-relief funds wisely – on areas and topics that support students and staff as we transition out of the pandemic and support innovation for the long-term.”
Underlying all of the intentional work to begin the year is a deep desire from school staff to meet kids where they are and support them in their next steps.
“What I always say about our district is that we ask – Is it good for kids? Many places find the reasons why they can’t do something. We find the reasons why we can,” says Will Wackman, Activities and Athletics Director. “If it’s good for kids, we’ll find a way.”
Will and a whole crew of coaches, activity leaders and parent volunteers, found a way to keep athletics and activities going throughout the pandemic with few disruptions. It was all about the importance of caring adults in a child’s life – a belief shared by his colleagues.
“The reason I am who I am today is that I had teachers invest in me and believe in me, show up for me and support and ask me how I’m doing and make those relationships,” says Trisha Nguyen, elementary teacher. “I want to be that same thing for these students, too.”
On the fifth day of school, Trisha’s third graders were already hard at work using a number rack to explore how they might visualize and group beads to help them do addition in their heads. It was already no big deal for them to stand up in front of each other and explain their ideas.
Sometimes their explanations are better than mine! I think the second grade team along with the students have done a fabulous job preparing for 3rd grade! The year is starting off great! Trisha Nguyen
Spring Lake Park Schools’ District Operational Plan for this year includes three interconnected Transition Out of Pandemic projects linked to the strategic plan’s three anchors – Engaged and Enthusiastic Learners, Effective Operations, and Communication and Connections. Find more details on these projects and others in the 2021-2022 District Operation Plan.