All students now likely have some form of unfinished learning due to the impact of COVID-19. As a principal of a high-needs inner city school, there were many questions I encountered that needed to be answered when designing our program for extended learning opportunities. What makes extended learning meaningful for students? How do we engage students and families? What curriculums are successful at accelerating their learning? What program components need to be in place to have the most impact on student growth?
Great instruction is great instruction, regardless of the setting, making this the goal of an educator each and every day. This leaves us to wonder, what makes providing these extended learning opportunities so complicated?
The answer becomes obvious when reflecting on the different components of highly effective extended learning opportunities. These components in isolation may not be difficult to implement, but the existence of all these components simultaneously can result in obstacles that will need to be thoughtfully addressed and overcome during the strategic planning process. Here are five must-have components found within effective extended learning opportunities and why they matter for students.
- Highly qualified teachers. They make all the difference in student outcomes. The success of extended learning opportunities is largely determined by the quality of the teachers. They need to be passionate, fully certified, committed to professional growth & development, and dedicated to collaboration with their instructional leadership/coaching team. Too often schools and districts do not have the staff they need to support these programs, but these efforts will be drastically less impactful if ineffective teachers, yet available and willing, are selected to provide the instruction. Extended learning opportunities must be staffed by master educators who will ensure that students’ time is well-spent, resulting in their growth and achievement and exciting them about the learning process.
- Intentionally designed curriculum & instruction. Quality Tier 1 instruction that is rigorous and data-driven throughout all learning environments must exist. The quality of the curriculum and instruction often determines the effectiveness of extended learning opportunities. It must be in addition to, not in substitution of, quality instruction within the regular classroom environment. Extended learning should enhance student learning by building on the foundation that has already been provided in the regular classroom and during the regular school day while also reaching all students at their individual levels.
- Effective instructional minutes. Maximizing students’ time during the school day is key. Consistent routines, procedures, and expectations that limit disruptions to the learning environment, including the time spent during transitions, instructions, and behavior corrections, allow more time to be spent on learning. Use time with students wisely. If we waste minutes with students at school then extended learning cannot truly be considered extended learning. It is just finishing the learning that should have happened when we wasted time throughout the school day. Extended learning should be in addition to a great year of instruction and fall within the range of 45-100 hours for maximum impact. Mandatory extended learning opportunities during the school day, and during the school year, are by far the most effective best practice. When attendance is not mandatory, the effectiveness of a program is at risk, especially when compared with the effectiveness of programs that are held after school and on weekends. In most cases, summer programs are the most effective voluntary student-extended learning opportunity. If voluntary attendance is the only option, students and families should be incentivized, inspired, and encouraged in ways that maximize student engagement and participation.
- Low class sizes. Individualized student needs should be met within a comfortable and inviting learning environment. Typically, extended learning opportunities have the advantage of keeping class size and student groups small. This is a practice that should be maintained if possible. Research shows that best practice is groups of no more than 15 students and far fewer when at all possible. Extended learning opportunities should take advantage of the ability to individualize instruction and target students’ specific needs in a smaller class setting.
- Student engagement. Generate engagement through quality lesson plans and activities, a positive school and classroom climate and culture, and meaningful family and community partnerships. This results in high student attendance rates and an enthusiasm for learning. Because students and families may view extended learning opportunities as “extra” and/or “optional,” it’s even more critical to build excitement and enthusiasm to generate participation and consistent attendance. This is largely determined by the climate and culture surrounding the program, the passion of the educators, how these opportunities are communicated to students and families, and the rigor, pace, and content within the daily lessons and activities. Extended learning opportunities need to be seen as valuable, even fun. Students will show up and families will be excited to ensure attendance.
Knowing and understanding the value and significance of the five components discussed above allows educators to plan and design the perfect extended learning opportunity based on the unique needs of their students. When these components are effectively implemented and utilized as the foundation for the extended learning program, student success should manifest. There are many options to consider for implementation. Here are eight of the most common, and most effective, programs:
- Opportunities Within the School Day
- Extended School Days
- Extended School Week
- Expanded School Year
- School Break Programs
- Before and After School Programs
- Digital/Online Learning
A lot goes into designing an amazing extended learning opportunity for students and the task can appear overwhelming! School Specialty has the resources needed to ensure that these programs are successful. Having the right tools and products gives educators the time, security, and confidence needed to focus on delivering incredible instruction. Within these tools exists a wide range of diverse materials that address the learning needs of all students with rigorous, hands-on, and authentic activities that are engaging and fun for learners. Explore below for some of our wonderful offerings:
Laura has served within the field of education for 16 years as a classroom teacher, specialist, assistant principal, and principal. She is certified as an educator in the areas of EC-12 Principal, EC-8 Generalist, 8-12 English Language Arts, Reading, and Social Studies, EC-12 Special Education, EC-12 Gifted and Talented, and EC-12 English as a Second Language. Her school experience varies to include work with students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, both in Texas and Europe, and within communities that were each uniquely diverse in terms of their demographics, size, and campus needs. While serving in these roles she developed expertise in the areas of curriculum and instruction, professional development, and leadership.
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