Summer and Fall School Planning
Undoubtedly summer 2020 is going to look and feel different than any of us imagined. Accepting this new reality will continue to take tremendous mental and emotional resources for most of us in order to find balance, reframe with optimism, and plan accordingly. To cope with and manage the uncertainty, we need to focus our school planning — and life planning — in stages that feel reasonably manageable. For each family, it’s a unique discussion, requiring curated recommendations, which we can help to organize for you.
Families are at various stages of thinking and planning. Some families are well in the groove with distance learning, while other families feel like they’re just trying to hobble to the school year finish line. Some families are surely not returning to NYC this fall, while others still aren’t sure. Many families are actively thinking about Plans A, B, and C for the summer months while also thinking ahead to the next school year.
A huge variable impacting the next couple months is the status of summer day camps and sleepaway camps. At the high school and college level, many programs have already been canceled or moved online. Therefore, we’re actively helping our upper students to get situated with online alternatives, including courses, programs, independent study (e.g. virtual science labs and computer programming), and possible volunteer or internship opportunities. The summer camp situation for our preschool, elementary, middle, and high school students is one we’re closely monitoring. Notably, the American Camping Association is expected to share additional guidelines next week. We’re feeling more hopeful for well resourced sleepaway camps than day camps, but at best it’s likely to be a shorter camp season with many new protocols in place.
Like families, schools, too, are in contingency planning mode. Ready to pivot in any number of ways, schools are contemplating a variety of options depending on evolving circumstances. School leadership is wrestling with these questions and others: Will school resume normally in September? Might students return in half groups with alternate timing? Might younger students return before older students? Will some students return but not others, thus creating a need for hybrid instruction both remotely and in-person? How do we maintain rigor and expectations? How do we maintain community? How do we manage enrollment?
We’re closely following all of these developments and remain in regular contact with school admissions directors and school leadership in NYC and across the country. Faya and I are scheduled to attend the Enrollment Management Association conference (regional seminar) on May 27th, which will include many of the admissions directors from NYC. We’re also meeting on a weekly basis with boarding schools across the country and regularly attending calls with our association groups. To that end, there are some incredible and creative procedures in place for therapeutic residential programs, for example, which are experiencing a large increase in inquiries and immediate enrollment. Under normal circumstances, these programs would be considered more restrictive school environments, but under the current circumstances, our students in therapeutic wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools are arguably having the more typical and less restrictive school experience with in-person teaching, in-person therapy, and peer relations. We’re also regularly in touch with representatives from established and innovative virtual school programs, which are also seeing a large increase in inquiries and enrollment. We’ll continue to stay on top of all developments and trends but don’t expect mainstream day and boarding schools to make firm decisions until later in the summer.
Because there are so many different age groups, academic needs, and schooling pathways, planning discussions need to be carefully differentiated for each family, just like our instruction. As nimble educational consultants and learning specialists, we’re here to help however we can. Think of us as your schooling phone-a-friend — preK through college — with expertise across day schools, boarding schools, and public schools. Whatever question or wonder you have about managing schooling for your children, wherever you may be currently located, we’re here for you.
Below you’ll find more information about: 1) benchmarking your child’s progress this school year, 2) summer enrichment teaching opportunities, 3) standardized testing in this climate, and 4) starting the common application essay.
Benchmarking Student Progress
The sad reality is that most students are taking an academic hit in the short term, but it’s still manageable. Considering that most private schools, for example, only started with distance learning and online learning around March 30th, we’re only just now in week 7, and the first two weeks were expectedly light. Most boarding schools and colleges will have their spring semesters concluded by the end of May, while many independent day schools will conclude their school year within the first 2 weeks of June per typical planning. Understanding that the sudden move to distance learning was head-spinning for everyone, most schools have been compassionate about their grading policies, many parents have appropriately eased pressure and expectations in response to their child’s emotional state (and/or their own), and colleges have indicated that they’ll be very reasonable about how they view this spring semester’s transcript for current juniors. But with a clear understanding that this virus isn’t just going away, and reopening NYC is going to take months (at least), we have to rally with planning as we look ahead to anticipated disruptions this summer and the upcoming school year. Hobbling to the finish line can be good enough for a lot of students this school year, but we need to be as ready as possible as we move into the next school year regarding both academic skills and plans to address continued distance learning.
For September 2020, all classroom teachers and schools are going to need to adjust their typical expectations to some degree because this last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year has been compromised. Our lower school students — and particularly our students in the primary grades — are likely going to be reading, writing, and completing math work below typical benchmarks as a result of missed instruction. Despite a school’s best efforts, pivoting to distance learning and online learning so quickly was a Herculean effort, and there was simply no way to perfectly optimize it for the 4th quarter. Moreover, there’s simply no replacement for in-person instruction and live classroom discourse. Digitals tools provide lots of opportunities and accessibility, but we typically prefer to use them as a complement to in-person instruction, especially with our younger students.
Many parents have inquired about benchmarking and making sense of report cards in this climate. They aren’t sure if their child is meeting grade level expectations or not. It’s surely not a guessing game, and parents don’t really need to wonder. The Common Core State Standards provide an excellent starting point for benchmarking, and while private schools don’t strictly follow these standards, many of them use these standards to guide their own curriculum mapping. For competitive NYC private schools, parents should look at typical grade level standards and reading benchmarks and then skew up a grade level. Keep in mind that standards aren’t “one and done” but rather build over time and across grade levels.
Since the Common Core website can be overwhelming for many parents to navigate, we like this alternative format developed by Jill McEldowney and Cathy Henry at The Curriculum Corner. For Kindergarten through 8th grades, they have created parent-friendly checklists based on CCSS in the form of “I Can…” statements available as both Excel and PDF formats.
We also make use of the Teachers College Columbia University Reading and Writing Project independent reading level quarterly benchmarking. It’s best not to get hung up on a single exit level for June but rather to think about reading levels in bands of two to three alpha letters. Performance with fiction and nonfiction texts may differ, and writing response work needs to be factored into benchmarking, particularly as students move into grades 2, 3, 4, and 5.
So while benchmarking doesn’t need to be a guessing game, it’s also not simple and quick. Ideally a portfolio of work from the entire school year is available to help guide benchmarking in addition to a variety of data points, including classroom work, homework, projects, grade level achievement testing (e.g. CTP testing), and informal classroom assessments (e.g. running records and spelling inventories). As for typing skills, typing.com offers typing speed guidelines for grades K-5.
Summer Enrichment Teaching
Because this 4th quarter of the school year has been compromised, and because many camp and summer programs are likely to be canceled or moved online, there’s an opportunity to use the summer season as an extended school year term, thus helping to avoid the summer slide. But summer learning can and should look different from academic year learning. Kids need to feel like they’re getting a break. They need to feel like the instructional time is something different. Summer learning, without school parameters in place, allows for more targeted instruction as well as project-based, interdisciplinary learning. The summer is a good time to close gaps, build expertise, or expand a passion. Ideally, the learning goals are driven by each student, which we can help to scaffold depending on age. With the help of creative and nimble educators — and the mindset that learning happens all the time and everywhere — the sky’s the limit with summer planning, and we welcome any special requests.
Moreover, as the weather improves, our faculty remains available for distance learning, but we could also consider some in-person instruction. For families who may be able to host outdoor or backyard sessions — either 1:1 or small groups of friends or siblings — we have a number of teachers who would be open to commuting and instructing or leading activities with social distancing and safety procedures in place. We’d need your help to organize the group, but it can be done with planning.
Here are some ideas from our teachers:
- Physics Lab at Home combines the rigor of an in-person lab while using the constraints imposed by remote learning to foster creativity and stimulate critical thinking. Students perform experiments at home with whatever materials they have at hand. They make measurements with both simple instruments they may have and with their cellphones. Students explore mechanics, electromagnetism, optics and thermodynamics in one-on-one sessions designed to illustrate a simple, profound truth: the world around us is governed by the laws of science.
- Book Groups for a few friends who haven’t been able to see each other in person. A group of cousins or other family members who usually gather during the summer at the family vacation house might also want to “meet” to discuss a high-interest book of their choosing. Mixed age groups can discuss a book that focuses on topics relevant to all or that might illuminate different perspectives. A group of students from the same school can read their assigned summer book together. Our teachers can help groups choose books, come to the meeting with ideas to share, and engage in a friendly, dynamic conversation. This can be a one-time activity or a group may choose to meet a few times over the summer.
- Journal Writing Circles for teens interested in using writing to explore feelings and ideas that might be difficult to talk about or that might normally be shared with friends in more normal times. Budding writers and all students would be encouraged to write informally without worrying about judgment or “correctness,” rather focusing on recalling memories, capturing fleeting thoughts or ideas and expressing themselves through writing. Prompts would be provided either between meetings or at the beginning of the sessions to help students write about a range of experiences. Sharing would be optional.
- Family History Interviews of older relatives with stories to tell! With more time on their hands, students can prepare generative questions to elicit grandparents or other family members’ stories. Working with a supportive teacher, individual students or a small group of students can prepare questions, practice interviewing, read profiles written in different formats and eventually write their own pieces that capture the experiences of their favorite relatives. Photos can be used to enhance the final stories, creating high-quality photo-journalistic pieces.
- Comedy writing is a fun and creative way for kids to learn the conventions of writing and producing content while expressing themselves. My Learning Springboard is offering lessons from TV writing/screenwriting to improv comedy to expository writing and more to keep students’ writing skills sharp in a fun, relaxed setting where they can write pieces that are true to their experiences and personalities. Looking for portfolio pieces to include in art school applications? Our team of teachers have won screenwriting competitions, been nominated for Sports Emmys and more, and they are happy to help hone your student’s voice as a writer and content creator.
- Super-Hero stories is a collaborative course in which students explore the traits and challenges of their favorite superheroes, including Thor, Moana, the Incredibles, and Studio Ghibli’s Chihiro. We will watch video clips and read stories to better understand how superheroes are created (their “origin stories”) and how they change over time. We will also discuss villains and whether so-called “evil” characters such as the Joker, Syndrome, and Disney’s Evil Stepmothers are born “bad” or become this way due to misfortune. Students will get a chance to present their own favorite superheroes from books and film. Then, inspired by the wide world of superheroes, students will get a chance to start thinking of their “superpowers” and how they might use their own special traits to deal with challenges and difficulties. Then, they will create their own unique superhero characters and send them off on missions and adventures. Their superhero stories will be workshopped and we will develop them using imaginative writing prompts. At the end of the course, students are invited to dress up as their characters and share their special superhero stories.
- Real-Life Math and Writing Connections for elementary and middle school students means searching for ways to take fundamental skills that the students need to practice, and repackaging them into activities that target the students’ interests. For example, when practicing mean, median, range, and mode, we might analyze statistics from a student’s favorite sports team. To facilitate teaching writing skills, we pick articles on topics that are interesting to the student. Music, movies, and sports can all provide opportunities for practicing skills. We’re able to push our students to read higher level discussions of the topics that interest them and are intrinsically motivating.
Standardized Test Preparation
The summer season is also an excellent time to get a jump start on standardized test preparation at every level from lower school through college. Given the pandemic, there has been speculation that private schools might go test optional. We continue to regularly check school websites and talk with directors, and so far we’ve only noted an official policy change at Poly Prep. While more schools might take this position, we expect that the majority of students will still choose to submit ISEE or SSAT scores if possible. A solid to strong performance on a standardized measure provides advantageous data for schools to review as part of the process, particularly when the spring term was so unusual. And truly the ISEE or SSAT is just a vehicle for middle or high school readiness. Going through the process closes any gaps and advances reading, writing, and math skills. We typically see huge growth for our students between now and December. What’s less clear is the specialized high school test (SHSAT) for NYC public schools. That test is typically administered in October, and it’s been a controversial test for years that was recently redesigned. We carefully monitor any SHSAT developments.
At the college level, there’s also speculation that more schools will ease their testing requirements and become test optional. That may happen, but notably about 75% of applicants to test optional colleges still choose to submit test scores, and those scores tend to skew higher because they’re voluntarily submitted. It’s fairly unchartered territory for NYC at the middle and high school level, but it’s well in effect at the college level, and we haven’t seen it curb behavior among our families. We expect that families who can manage at-home testing procedures will proceed with test preparation programs and official testing in the months to come. All of the major publishers — The College Board, ACT, SSAT, and ERB — have either already made at-home testing available or have these procedures planned to launch in August. This includes every major test we support, including SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT, APs, SAT subject tests, and graduate level exams.
For now, it seems the only age groups that are surely saved from standardized testing are our rising kindergartners and first graders. ERB has officially phased out use of the AABL, and they are not planning to resurrect the ECAA. Schools will each have to create their own assessment protocols as things stand right now.
The Common Application Essay
Each year, the Common Application itself “resets” in early August, so we advise rising seniors to wait until then to fill out its typable forms; similarly, colleges tend to post their individual supplemental essay prompts in August or early September. But the Common Application has already released its essay prompts for the upcoming application cycle, making spring and summer an ideal time to begin the writing process—particularly this year. At a time when everyone’s plans have been upended, starting the Common Application essay injects a bit of normalcy. It allows students some control while challenging themselves creatively, with no pressing deadlines. It is one of the concrete steps that they can take in shaping their future, an opportunity to reflect on where they’ve been—such as a nook on a living-room floor, a treacherous rock wall, or a thumping concert arena—where they are, and where they will go.
By Brad Hoffman, Faya Hoffman, and Laurie Gross
My Learning Springboard Leadership Team