Districts focus on mental health, teacher training to boost student achievement

Studenents listen to their teacher
Kindergarten students at Falcon Heights Elementary School attentively listen to their teacher, Laurie Schlossmacher, during a classroom lesson.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

When Julio Caesar looks at his district’s test scores and survey data, he can see the effects of the pandemic as clearly as lines on a seismograph after an earthquake. Caesar is the executive director of research evaluation and assessment for Bloomington Public Schools. 

He can track the hit his district’s students took by looking at, among other things, math and reading scores.

After the start of the pandemic, reading proficiency dropped from 60 to 50 percent. Math proficiency plunged even farther — from 50 to 35 percent. These sorts of declines have been measured in districts around the state and throughout the country

In Bloomington, Minn., there has been some recovery over the last few years and definitive learning progress. But not as much as hoped. When Caesar goes to the data to try to understand what’s happening, he’s struck by the ways student attendance and engagement have shifted since Minnesota schools closed their doors in March 2020. 

“A lot of student behavior has changed quite a bit. What we’re seeing is students coming into classes, leaving classes and not coming back for 30 to 40 minutes,” Caesar said. “And our attendance were pretty low from 2019 to 2022. Usually here at the district, we work with that 95 percent attendance rate as our goal. And actually for 2021, we had to lower goals to, instead of using the 95 percent threshold, to use the state’s 90 percent threshold, because our attendance was so poor.” 

When his team ran the numbers last year, they found there was a strong correlation between low attendance or class time and low test scores. They haven’t finished this year’s analysis, but Caesar predicts they might see similar results.

They’re relying on surveys to figure out what students and families need to get kids to class and stay in class. But for now, when they think about helping students progress academically, they’re thinking about how to help students feel more welcome and engaged at school, and how to build relationships between the staff at school and the students attending. 

“One of the major things that we’re doing right now is social emotional learning,” Caesar said. “It’s just maintaining those relationships, building those relationships and continuing those relationships as much as we can.”

The district has increased the number of social workers in its buildings and ramped up its summer school programs — more than doubling the number of students it serves in the summer months. Staff focus has been on relationship building. And it is doing district-wide surveys twice a year to learn more about what’s working.

Fire doors with locks and magnets can swing shut to create barriers.
Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, Minn., is part of a district that saw distinct reading and math proficiency drops.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Emphasis on extracurriculars

Student attendance has also been a problem in the North St. Paul school district. That’s according to superintendent Christine Tucci Osorio. 

“One of the residual effects, I think, of the pandemic is just incredible, skyrocketing absenteeism rates among students, and a real shortage of staffing as well,” Tucci Osorio said. “If we’re missing the core, because students are gone a lot, and complicated by the fact that staff are also gone, like, we’re not firing on all cylinders, when we’re in school … we can’t make gains if we’re not all together in school learning.”  

The district has put a lot of extra energy into summer and after-school programs. But after collecting survey data and hosting round table discussions with students, it’s shifting focus to extracurriculars and affinity clubs — and trying to make its messaging on attendance more clear.

“In addition to focusing on social-emotional [learning] ... we really are trying to make sure that there’s something for everybody to be connected to. That is, those extracurricular or those performing arts or those athletic kind of opportunities — clubs, affinity groups, because we know that if students feel connected to those kinds of opportunities, they are more likely to be engaged in school, come to school every day. So we’re actually measuring that and reporting that data to our school board,” Tucci Osorio said.

The district, which is struggling to hire paraprofessionals and bus drivers, is also focusing on staff experiences.

“Burnout among educators is real. And when you think about the staffing shortages that everybody’s been facing, the burnout is even more intense,” Tucci Osorio said. 

In Fridley, Minn., school leaders invested COVID relief money in hiring more social workers, and in adding a teacher in second grade to help students who didn’t get a regular in-person kindergarten experience. They also re-worked their lunch period to make it longer and encouraged students to socialize and form friend and interest groups. And they invested in making their summer and after school programs more fun. 

“We did a lot of field trips, or we brought things into the schools in the summer for just experiences that kids would have missed out on because we couldn’t do field trips for two years,” said Jason Bodey, Fridley’s director of teaching and learning. 

Bodey said attendance is going up and this next year the district is planning an intense focus on literacy in line with the newly passed Read Act.

“We’ve focused on relationships and social-emotional needs largely for the last couple of years. We’ve focused on mindset and adult learning around equity and bias and things like that,” Bodey said. “I think we’ve built a culture and a community here that values that and so now we are shifting our back to a little bit more of an academic look at our literacy, in our new adoption of new curriculum and our practices.”

Bullying presentation
The Fridley school district, which includes Hayes Elementary School, says it is focusing more on relationships and social-emotional needs.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2012

Teacher training

In Wayzata, Minn., Dana Miller, who is the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, said she and her colleagues are tracking some of their district’s biggest fault lines in groups of students whose transition years were interrupted by the pandemic.

For example, students who were in sixth and seventh grade during the height of the pandemic and missed the introduction to middle school have had more social issues in eighth grade. 

“At any of those really specific transitional years, which are always harder developmentally for our learners … we saw that exasperated by COVID, or, you know, the civil unrest, and everything that was going on in the world for our students,” Miller said.

The district has made adjustments to try to address this by adding extra parent-teacher meetings for transitioning students or giving their teachers more training to understand what’s happening with kids who are struggling in the classroom.

The interrupted schooling didn’t just affect student social behavior. Stacey Lackner, who is the Wayzata district’s director of research and evaluation, is also seeing patterns in students who missed key academic moments. More fifth grade students, for example, are struggling in math after missing important lessons in third grade.

“When they were in second and third grade, they had very interrupted learning. So some of that in pivotal math skills that they would have gotten in the end of second grade … [they] didn’t have a typical second and third grade experience, and some of those foundational mathematics skills,” Lackner said.

Kindergarten students draw spiders.
Kindergarten students work on counting and drawing spiders at Wayzata Central Middle School.
Bridget Bennett | MPR News 2014

To address this, Wayzata and other districts are focusing on teacher training to try to prepare teachers to address specific gaps in social and academic learning. But they’re also plunging them into new ways of teaching literacy, to bring classrooms in line with the recently passed Read Act

In St. Cloud, Minn., Donna Roper, who is the district’s executive director of research and evaluation, said second grade teachers and students have gotten a head start on some of the structured literacy work required under the new legislation. The preliminary results, she said, are promising.

“We did some real intentional work in some of our second grade classrooms that kind of gave us a good 15 point bump this year, which is really exciting,” Roper said. 

One of the goals for this next year is to expand that professional development to get more training and resources to teachers. 

“What’s become really important is making sure that our teachers are accessing high quality information related to learning and instruction,” Roper said. “There’s so much noise for our teachers, in terms of what to do, and … we have a commitment to providing some professional learning that I think will be really well received by our staff,” Roper said.

St. Cloud, like many districts, has spent a lot of time and resources on mental health and social and emotional learning over the past few years. But, heading into the upcoming academic year, it’s plunging ahead on academics and teacher training they hope will help students progress. 

Roper said the pandemic has been a disaster akin to a tsunami.

“And we’re all still kind of cleaning up,” Roper said. “Some people are getting on the road a little faster than others. And it’s taking some people more time. But I think we’re starting to really get back on the main highway, if you will.”

Students sit at tables in a class.
Students at St. Cloud Tech High School are included in a wider district effort to boost mental health over the past few years.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2019
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