Learning Engagement Pages Continue Through Summer

Closure Response To Now Turn to Summer Slide
Posted on 06/02/2020
This is the image for the news article titled Closure Response To Now Turn to Summer SlideAfter seven weeks of writing, designing, publishing and distributing learning engagement for preschool through 5th grade, Weakley County’s focus on learning engagement during the COVID-19 school closure is shifting attention to the “summer slide.” The writing team of Weakley County District Office staff members is expanding to include representatives from each of the five elementary schools. And the commitment from the Weakley County Press, the provider of the full page of activities as part of their weekly newspaper, is to continue offering the full page until school restarts in the fall.

“We didn’t know exactly how many of our students were without internet access and/or a device at home but we suspected the numbers were high,” said Randy Frazier, Weakley County Schools Director, in earlier interviews regarding the district’s decision to forego distance learning. “We also knew that with more than half of our student population on free or reduced meal plans, our first priority had to be ensuring that our children would continue to receive food. As soon as we had that plan underway, we could turn our attention to learning engagement. But even then, I wanted to avoid additional stress for our families by piling on thick homework packets or online assignments.”

The district’s instructional staff came up with simple two-page, age-level focused, printed flyers offering suggestions of the kinds of activities that could be done each week. The flyers were distributed along with meals that parents were picking up at 13 locations across the county.

“Once we were given direction to refrain from any kind of formal instruction such as distance learning or take-home packets when schools first closed, we began to explore what we could do that would encourage learning engagement each week and yet not overwhelm parents or our students when they were already dealing with so much turmoil,” said Terri Stephenson, Director of Instruction for Preschool, Kindergarten and Elementary Schools for the County, while providing a brief history of the project to the newly recruited writers in a writers conference held last week.

“Our instructional staff came up with the idea of 3/40 – three 40 minute segments that focused on reading and writing, math and purposeful play,” she explained.

The flyers were also reproduced on the district website (www.weakleyschools.com) with additional links provided for those who had internet access and wanted to draw from a variety of resources to carry out the plan each week.

“That simple concept – first on paper and then with hundreds of links suggested by teachers from across the county – created a website within our website,” noted Karen Campbell, WCS Communications Director. “The site is set up in such a way that as a user’s interest grows they can click for more and more information. We didn’t want to overwhelm with long lists of links, so I hope we struck a good balance.”

The flyer and the web pages were all that was planned until one of the local newspapers, The Weakley County Press, made an offer that was too good to refuse.

First, Sabrina Bates, the news producer for the Press, suggested reproducing the flyer in the paper to ensure wider distribution. Then the Press’ business manager Lynette Wagster offered a full color page each week of the closure at no cost to the school system so that specific helps could be provided on a regular basis.

“We are more than just a news vehicle,” said Wagster of the rationale for making the generous offer. “We are a part of this community. We wanted to help in any way we could, and we can certainly provide a means of publishing.”

Frazier was able to then designate funding to purchase discounted copies of the paper to be distributed at the meal distribution sites.

“The intent was to reach as many of our students as possible with as streamlined of a process as possible, and this seemed to be a great way to do both,” Frazier explained. “Plus, we were not dependent upon the internet.”

However, for those with internet access, versions of the print pages have been made available for download on the WCS website.

An informal survey of students conducted by teachers making check-in calls during the initial weeks of the closure soon revealed that approximately ¼ of Weakley County students have low to no internet access including 16.7% of students from Dresden schools; 14.6% from Gleason; 12.4% from Greenfield; 5.3% from Martin; and 37.4% from Sharon. Another roughly 15% of those who do have access only have a phone as their device.

Teacher’s calls to students also uncovered that less than half of the county would be able to utilize the state’s Department of Education closure-focused programming through Tennessee PBS. The county’s location on the northwest corner of Tennessee means many residents only have access to Kentucky programming.

To produce the printed weekly pages, a team of writers was quickly organized. Staff discussions had determined the most likely audience were those parents and caregivers with preschoolers and elementary-aged children. In her role as instructional supervisor, Stephenson took the lead. Rather than add to the stress of teachers in the early days of closure anxiety, she enlisted district staff: Karen Fowler, the county’s preschool consultant; Megan Moore, District Math Coach; Jessica Wade, District RTI Coordinator; and Karen Campbell, Communications Director, to produce the various segments of the page.

“Take the mental and emotional stress and strain of a pandemic, add in a quarter of a student population with no-to-low access to the internet, include evolving (and sometimes contradictory) guidance from experts and you’ve got a good recipe for chaos. Fortunately, chaos theory suggests that organisms are at their most creative at the edge of chaos. And the organisms at the helm of instruction at Weakley County Schools have proven to be a most creative lot,” said Campbell of the flurry of the first seven weeks of production.

As the team worked independently from home offices, Stephenson both wrote and oversaw the team. Campbell served as a writer and editor, as well as assisting with graphic design of puzzles and games to complement the work of Beth Cravens, the Press’ editorial cartoonist and graphic designer.

Weakley Arts Can, a local arts advocacy group that often collaborates with Weakley County Schools, also provided a weekly arts emphasis during the closure period that was featured on a separate page of the Press.

“This effort truly took a village,” noted Stephenson as she addressed the new recruits who will be taking over the writing while the district staff assumes content editing roles. “We learned along the way. What we learned will be reflected as we now address the summer slide when children aren’t reading and typically lose two to three months of reading skills.”

As report cards became due, Frazier asked teachers to determine what state-required standards they felt had not been covered due to the closure or had gotten less attention and would therefore result in a gap when classes resume. Stephenson received that data from each school and the identified gaps became the focus for the revamped Weakley Summer Engagement Series.

The newly formed team brings on Amy Lawrence, librarian at Gleason School; and teachers Tiffany Frazier, kindergarten at Martin Primary, April Fishel of Martin Elementary; Mikaela Roberts, kindergarten at Greenfield School; Lisa Whitworth of Dresden Elementary; and Danielle VanCleave from Sharon School’s second grade.

Fowler will continue to develop the Pre-K materials.
Lawrence will take on the Story for Young Readers, which is included on the page to help with families who may not have reading materials in their home. Frazier and Fishel will work with Wade to produce reading and writing activities for kindergarten through 5th grade. Roberts and Whitworth with Moore will develop math suggestions for K-5. VanCleave will take over Purposeful Play suggestions from Campbell. And Stephenson will continue as team leader.

“We were pleased to learn through our standards survey that the uncovered material was not as vast as some might have expected. We believe with attention paid in the coming weeks, we can start the new year ready to cover lost ground and quickly move forward,” concluded Stephens.