NARRAGANSETT – After a school year marred by a pandemic and distance learning, the Narragansett School System (NSS) is taking extra steps to ensure student success.
The district recently created a voluntary tutoring service, named the NSS Learning Academies, to identify and provide relief to those struggling in math and/or English at no extra cost. Data from the program, meanwhile, indicates the endeavor has been successful in helping bridge learning gaps spurred by time away from school, shifts in lifestyle, other changes caused by the pandemic and traditional deficiencies.
“We were looking at student data,” said NSS Curriculum Director Gail Dandurand. “We give assessments, we looked at teacher input, failures at the high school level, the whole plethora of data that we have. We use that data to determine what we needed to do to offer support to our struggling students.”
“These students were struggling for various reasons,” Dandurand continued. “The biggest one this year was probably COVID. There was a lot of distance learning, people’s family situations changed, especially with the older kids. They had to do more babysitting, I mean, there’s a variety of reasons why some of the students were struggling a bit more.”
Using software to assess different student needs down to specific areas of learning that had to be addressed, Dandurand and a team from the district got to work last year. The first step was to research tutoring strategies and programs that have had a positive impact when implemented. Dandurand and the district, after seeing strong data from EdResearch for Recovery Design Principals, a study outlining effective tutoring models, opted to base the NSS tutoring program on tried-and-true methods. The resulting system included high-dosage tutoring, small group sizes, aligning curriculum with supplemental instruction and honing in on particular subjects and areas of learning rather than a broad approach.
“The short story is that high-dosage tutoring in small groups with a consistent tutor over time produces results and doesn’t that just make sense?” said Dandurand.
In spring and summer sessions conducted this year, groups of three to four students met with tutors in-person three to four times a week. Tutors, most from within the district, underwent specialized training and learned about particular students’ needs for improvement in order to better address specific achievement gaps.
“Having that relationship with the tutor, if possible, leads to stronger improvement,” said Dandurand. “Data shows that smaller instruction sizes lead to a more personalized learning experience, which typically results in greater growth. The data allows us to get down to that granular level of do they need help in not just reading, but reading comprehension as well?”
At Narragansett Elementary School (NES), 38 students participated in the spring session, while another 18 students attended the tutoring program during the summer months. At Narragansett Pier School (NPS), 31 students attended in the spring and another 14 students participated in the summer session. Finally, 21 students from Narragansett High School (NHS) received tutoring in the spring while another 12 students came during the summer.
While tutoring efforts for students from NES and NPS were more instructional, the district said, students at the high school level received additional guidance in completing work and recovering credits in order to get them back on track for graduation and advancing grade levels. The difference in tutoring methods and strategies varies greatly based on grade level and age of the student. Further, the district checked students’ progress frequently during the length of the sessions, making adjustments if necessary. NSS also regularly updated the Narragansett School Committee on participants’ progress.
The resulting data provided by the district, meanwhile, shows strong improvements. For 15 students receiving tutoring at the first-grade level, only 7 percent of attendees improved at the typical rate for reading levels, while the remaining 93 percent advanced two or more levels during the sessions. For participants in third grade, 33 percent met typical growth and 66 percent exceeded typical growth. The program also enjoyed a 94 percent attendance rate, though Dandurand noted participation was low in the summer due to the hardships of the past year and many starting to re-emerge from pandemic lockdowns upon becoming vaccinated.
The NSS Curriculum Director credits the program’s success to the tutors - many who already worked within the district - and NSS site coordinators Emily Chartier, Tracey McCallig and John O’Brien, who not only helped develop and implement the specific tutoring strategies, but were also present at all sessions during the spring and summer months.
Narragansett is in a unique position as a school district. With the ongoing shortage of affordable, single-family homes in the seaside tourist and college town, the district has had to expand enrollment via other means, adopting strong career and technical programs to attract out-of-district students at the high school level. This, however, means that some students are transferring districts at NHS, which can lead to achievement gaps and other learning needs that need to be addressed in order to ensure success. What’s more, Dandurand added, the program is free and voluntary.
“If you’re going to pay for a tutor, it can get quite expensive,” she said. “Here we are, the district, and we’ve identified these needs and we’d like to help at no cost.”
The move is just one of countless examples of how the world is adjusting to unprecedented circumstances and massive shifts in lifestyle in this stage of the pandemic. Seeing NSS shape itself to fit the needs of its student population and their families has been rewarding, the NSS Curriculum Director confirmed.
“I think Narragansett really rose to the occasion to meet the needs of the community during the pandemic,” said Dandurand. “Not just with the learning academy, but we’ve always had the needs of the students, the community and our staff in the forefront of our minds. What’s the best that we can do?”
The feeling on the other side is mutual.
"My child would not have graduated without this tutoring," wrote one parent in feedback to the district.
"This has been an outstanding program and we so very much appreciate it," wrote another. "[Name redacted] has enjoyed the program so much and is so interested in reading now and more confident. We are so very appreciative!"
There were no negative comments submitted to the district regarding the program, NSS said.
Now, the district is taking stock of the new tutoring service, assessing what worked well and what areas could be improved or expanded on in future sessions.
“Now when students come back in the fall, they’re not going to be pulled for the skills they were tutored in during these sessions,” Dandurand concluded. “There might be other areas to work on, but it’s going to hopefully let them come back with confidence and the skills they need to be successful.”