A Year in the Life: Preparing for the 2021-22 School Year

We are releasing a series of dispatches on the bright spots and challenges of the past year in Somerville Public Schools. We hope this in-depth look at one community can shed light on what students and schools across the state need right now and how communities and policymakers can support them. Previous dispatches have looked at remote learning and community connections.

What comes next after the disruptions of the last year? For students in the class of 2021, what will they do now that high school has come to a close? How can returning students—as well as families, staff, and community partners—prepare mentally, emotionally, and academically for the start of a new school year this fall? How can district leaders think about fundamentally transforming the education system in response to the effects of the pandemic and the inequities that it highlighted and exacerbated?

In the final set of dispatches in our “Year in the Life” series on Somerville Public Schools, we examine these and related questions, aiming to highlight themes that emerged from our conversations with a range of stakeholders. In particular, we zero in on two topics: the transition to postsecondary for graduating students, and preparation for the coming school year.

To write this dispatch, we developed targeted interview and focus group questions for various stakeholders connected to Somerville Public Schools and conducted a series of virtual interviews and focus groups over the course of several weeks. These conversations included a focus group with grade 12 teachers and interviews with a parent, two high school administrators, and two district staff. We also gathered additional background information from a conversation with two community partners working with Somerville students, and we pulled relevant themes and comments from interviews and focus groups with students, staff, and community partners that took place over the past few months.

Read on below for more on Somerville's efforts to prepare for the 2021-22 school year or check out our companion piece on supporting the transition to postsecondary.

Preparing for the 2021-22 School Year
Looking ahead to this fall, school and district leaders expressed a lot of uncertainty about what students will need to succeed, academically and otherwise. As described in our dispatch on remote instruction, the district has been screening students’ progress in various subjects and has already set some priorities for academic subjects in need of further attention. For example, having noted that middle grades math is an area of concern, efforts are underway to diagnose and address unfinished learning for students in grades 7-9 (including through a partnership with The Calculus Project). However, educators and staff still don’t have a full picture of where students are, especially among those who opted to stay remote for the full school year. Staff expect to spend the first few weeks of the new school year gaining a clearer sense of the foundational skills and knowledge students will need to succeed in their classes.

They also expect the need for more dedicated attention to students’ social, emotional, and mental health in the fall. Staff already noted an uptick in social-emotional and mental health challenges among students who returned to school in the spring, though these took some time to manifest—in part because so many students were happy to be back to in-person learning alongside their peers, and in part because it took time for counselors to build the kind of trusting relationships that allow for deep conversations about students’ thoughts and feelings. By mid-May, though, high school support staff noted increasing numbers of counseling visits and referrals to embedded mental health service providers such as Riverside Community Care and the CHA Somerville Teen Connection Health Center, which work directly with students at Somerville High School.

As students return to school in the fall, staff expect to focus first on students who were experiencing difficulties at the end of the last school year. In weekly meetings of the student support team, members will seek to assess trends and identify additional support structures that can be put in place. One high school staff member noted that the increase in school counselors, district-level supports, and teacher professional development (e.g., on trauma-sensitive classrooms) over the past year have helped lay the groundwork for what’s to come. At the same time, there are likely to be areas in need of more intensive support—for instance, one district administrator noted that there has been an increase in homelessness over the past year, including among unaccompanied youth, so there may be a need for a dedicated social worker to work with the population of homeless students and families.

Summer Programming
Somerville is planning to provide a wide variety of offerings this summer to help students build academic skills, explore new interests, reconnect with peers, and smooth the transition into the next school year. As one staff member noted, “Our vision was to really provide as many opportunities for students this summer as we could.” Another shared that part of the goal is for students to spend time with peers in non-academic settings. For example, during Summer Partners for Language and Learning (SPELL), multilingual learners will participate in academic work in the morning before transitioning to group-based project work for the last two hours of the day. A range of outside partners will also be working with and in the schools to provide programming, engaging students on the arts, robotics, and many other topics of interest.

At the high school level, summer programming will build on the traditional credit recovery model, in which students carry out blended online and in-person learning to build their knowledge and make up the work in subjects where they received a failing grade during the school year. In part, this model is different in the summer of 2021 because school staff have been preemptively working with students throughout the year to recover credit for missed assignments; in this “quarter recovery” approach, students who received low marks in a course because they missed an assignment or struggled on a test had the chance to make up that work during the school year rather than over the summer. Students will also have some chances to make up coursework through credit recovery this fall, if their schedules allow.

While credit recovery options may look different than in past years, high school students will also have access to new avenues for learning this summer. Some students (particularly those with more inflexible schedules, such as English learners and career/technical education students) will have the chance to earn original credit in health or physical education through summer programming. Meanwhile, all high school students—including incoming 9th graders—will have access to a number of optional mini-courses this summer on topics ranging from graphic design and production to world percussion to creative writing. Staff are uncertain how many students will opt into these programs, but they hope that by offering enrichment opportunities they can continue to build on students’ interests and promote engagement in school activities.

Separately, staff are focused on supporting a smooth transition into high school for incoming 9th graders. Several of the individuals we spoke with commented on how difficult this transition can be in general, much less amid a pandemic when students have been learning virtually for most of the year—and when they will be moving into a brand-new, unfamiliar high school building that just opened last spring. Somerville’s rising 9th graders will participate in a two-week high school orientation in which they will get to know a cohort of their peers and have the chance to visit their new school. They and their families will also get to learn more about the opportunities available at the high school level such as vocational education, world languages, arts, and athletics.

School and district leaders noted the challenge of recruiting staff to lead summer programming, given how hard the year was for teachers. This has made partnerships with community providers even more critical and emphasized the need to work with local nonprofits on dedicated programming. One such partner is Breakthrough Greater Boston, which provides six years of no-cost out-of-school-time support for students in Somerville (and other nearby communities). Because their model begins at the middle school level, Breakthrough staff are especially attuned to the transition into high school, and they are partnering closely with Somerville High to help prepare students academically and mentally for the start of the new school year. This summer, Breakthrough is offering both synchronous and asynchronous virtual options in order to enable as many students as possible to participate, exemplifying the flexibility that is core to summer programming this year in Somerville.  

Whether in district-led or community-based summer programs, a final theme this summer is the need to maintain social-emotional and mental health supports. Somerville gave school and adjustment counselors the option to work over the summer and receive stipends for the hours they work, recognizing that they will be needed to support students in summer programming and beyond. Summer staff have also received training in tier 1, whole-class interventions, such as morning meetings.

Moving forward:

     -  Prioritize summer learning opportunities that build connections between students, such as through project-based learning cohorts, while strengthening academic skills.

     -  Consider building in opportunities for credit recovery during the school year so that fewer students need to participate in summer programming to make up for incomplete (or unsatisfactory) coursework.

     -  Work with community partners to design summer programming that leverages the assets of both the school district (e.g., learning spaces and registration systems) and the community (e.g., expertise in topics of interest, staff who share students’ cultural background).

     -  Focus on the transition into 9th grade by offering a dedicated high school orientation for incoming students. Ensure that this orientation allows students to get to know their peers and learn about their full range of learning options.

School Year Supports
Several district leaders noted the importance of approaching the 2021-22 school year with a focus on acceleration, not remediation—that is, supporting students to learn grade-level content and keep making forward strides in their learning, rather than teaching lower-level content in an effort to fill in gaps. This forward-looking approach will also build on what students have learned over the past year both inside and outside of school, including the resilience they built amid the turmoil of the pandemic.

One resource that will be available to help accelerate student learning is an engaged group of community volunteers. The Somerville Family Learning Collaborative (SFLC), the district’s department of family and community engagement, maintains a database of nearly 1,200 registered volunteers to support school and classroom programming, including almost 150 new volunteers who joined during the last school year. Innovative strategies to support learning and wellness through volunteer engagement include remote and in-person out-of-school-time tutoring and mentoring, volunteer therapy dog teams, and in-school academic support and lesson extensions. A part-time volunteer coordinator works at the SFLC to manage the volunteer website and database and recruit, screen, and refer volunteers, while school-based coordinators receive stipends for their help with placing and supporting volunteers. Though this team’s capacity is limited by its small size, and it represents only one approach to offering additional academic and non-academic assistance to students in the coming school year, Somerville is fortunate to have an existing infrastructure in place to engage a corps of committed, experienced tutors and mentors.

When it comes to addressing students’ mental health and social-emotional needs, Somerville will focus on maintaining structures that have worked well over the past year while incorporating new sources of support. For instance, offering virtual mental health services (also known as telecounseling) has proven to be a viable option over the past year. In fact, embedded service providers could see more students during the school day because transitions between meetings on Zoom were more seamless than finding students within the school building. Going forward, partners will be able to meet with students either in person or virtually. Additionally, district staff have improved the structures they have in place for case coordination, allowing them to more quickly and easily identify issues affecting siblings attending multiple schools.

At Somerville High School, staff will also seek to refine a new tiered system of support they began implementing last year that emphasizes the need for strong teacher-student relationships and allows the counseling department and other support staff to focus their attention where it can be most valuable. In this approach, when teachers have concerns about a student’s attendance or engagement in classes, for instance, they are responsible for reaching out directly to the student and family to try to identify the underlying causes and any needed supports or next steps. If this outreach proves unsuccessful, teachers can refer the student to their academic department head, and then to a team that includes a school counselor, assistant principal, and dean of students. (Of course, this system is not used for students experiencing a more significant and time-sensitive need, or those in a crisis situation).

Formalizing these expectations for staff did not proceed seamlessly; for instance, some teachers expressed confusion about when to bring in outside supports. However, this shift in the support system allows counselors and others doing specialized mental health work to really focus on the students most in need of wraparound services, while helping promote relationship-building between teachers, students, and families. Looking ahead to next year, staff plan to examine the elements of the tiered system in need of clarification or adjustment, and to offer more training on how teachers can engage with families (including multilingual families) in order to encourage more consistent classroom-level outreach. On the positive side, as one staff member put it, at the high school level, “I think most teachers now understand that you’re teaching to a whole student, not just teaching a subject.”

Across the district, but especially in the upper grades, staff have used the disruption of the past year as an opportunity to rethink systems and structures that have been in place for a long time. One change—described by a staff member as “the biggest change that Somerville High School will have seen in a lot of years”—will reorganize the student body into four “communities,” each with its own dedicated student support team (assistant principal, two school counselors, dean of students, and administrative assistant). Other support staff, such as adjustment counselors and liaisons, will collaborate with the communities as needed to work with students and families. One of the four communities will be specifically geared toward newcomers (immigrant students and those learning English), and it will include a bilingual school counselor and bilingual adjustment counselor. This will mark a substantial change from the past, where staff working with newcomer students would be coordinating across multiple student support teams.

Other potential changes include modifications to the high school schedule (though the exact form of that schedule is still in flux) and the potential for de-tracking math classes to allow more students access to advanced content. These broader structural changes have been aided by deeper collaboration among the administrative team at the high school, which was necessitated by the pandemic-related school closures. As one administrator put it, coming out of the past year, “We’re so much stronger as a team. We already have systems in place for opening school next year. We all have our own tasks and responsibilities, which we never had in the past.”

One final point, emphasized by multiple school and district leaders, is the need to consider what worked well over the past year and to use that as a starting point, rather than focusing only on deficits in learning. This includes identifying the students for whom remote learning worked well. As one teacher noted, “I wish there was a way to capture the kids who said, this is better for me, I’m not getting involved in high school drama, away from the craziness, and getting more work done.” While this was not true for all (or most) students, it is worth exploring how to best serve those who thrived over the past year.

Moving forward:

     -  Assess what has worked well and areas in need of clarification or improvement when it comes to student support structures. Ensure that roles and responsibilities for outreach to students and families are clearly defined and follow a tiered approach that allows the escalation of urgent issues.

     -  Gather feedback from students and families about their experiences over the past year and use this information to drive decision-making. Emphasize for students and families the need for accelerating rather than remediating learning.

     -  Consider whether and how schools are prepared to bring on outside volunteers to offer support, including by monitoring the capacity available for supporting volunteer recruitment and placement. Noting that not everyone who expresses interest in volunteering is a good fit to provide services, consider how to leverage volunteers’ skill sets as mentors, tutors, liaisons, and other roles.

     -  Use a variety of models for offering student services during the school day, including through telecounseling and partnerships with outside service providers. Ensure that school, district, and community-based providers are communicating regularly to support case management for individual students and families.

In a conversation in March 2021, district leaders pointed out that the way to approach the next school year should not be to focus on making up for the past year, but instead to ask how we can help students move forward and advance toward a more equitable and effective system. As a school committee member noted, “It’s amazing to hear people who said schools weren’t working pushing to get back to that as soon as possible. This is an opportunity to really talk about all the ways that schools didn’t work before March 2020.” As Somerville prepares to bring students back in the fall, there are sure to be many more conversations about how to improve the educational opportunities available for all learners.