CBE’s worsening academic results spark calls for change

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Public schools are making a multitude of changes to student supports after an academic results report showed a troubling pattern of decreasing scores since the pandemic, particularly among students with special needs.

According to the report, the Calgary Board of Education is looking at over 80 recommendations for improvement, including a stronger focus on literacy and numeracy in the early grades, better attendance, more teacher development and increased supports for English-language learners after thousands of refugee students were added in the past two years.

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Comparing 2022-23 to the previous academic year, students across all grades had worsening report card grades in every core subject — including math, science, social studies and English language arts — with many cohorts showing their highest grades in 2018-19, before COVID hit.

Students learning English as an additional language, who self-identify as Indigenous, or who have a variety of special needs showed some of the largest drops in academic scores in the past year, and since the pandemic.

Officials have admitted the public system has faced exceptional challenges over the past several years, beginning with waves of school closures in 2020, followed by high rates of illness and absenteeism among students and teachers, resulting in significant learning losses, especially at the elementary level where digital learning is more difficult.

And as those pandemic impacts slowed in the past two years, the public school system is now facing historically high enrolment growth with thousands of new families arriving from across Canada, looking for a more affordable cost of living, and from around the world, as global tensions rise in places like the Ukraine, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.

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But Joanne Pitman, CBE superintendent school improvement, says schools officials are adding a number of unique tools and supports to improve academic achievement, in spite of ongoing challenges.

Much of the work, she explained, will be in improved students assessments. After students in early grades suffered significant learning losses in literacy and numeracy, the CBE has introduced the “Assessment of Foundational Reading Skills” for kids as young as kindergarten.

“We are utilizing tools that will allow teachers to know exactly where students are at, so they can adjust instructions sooner,” Pitman said, explaining that the assessment measures critical learning outcomes like letter recognition or phonetic sounds, and tracks student achievement throughout the early grades to help teachers adjust lesson plans immediately.

“It’s something we’ve been building towards for the last two years. It takes a while to roll out the training, but now we’ve got it across all schools.”

Since math has also seen lower scores in early grades with the implementation of a new curriculum, the CBE has purchased a new digital resource called “MathUp,” which allows students to learn outside of a traditional textbook, and gives teachers more detailed information on where a student is at coming into a specific grade.

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“It’s much different than a textbook, allowing teachers to look at different lesson plans, more ways of learning that are aligned to new curriculum, and ways to differentiate for student needs based on their previous knowledge.”

Teachers are also receiving increasing access to professional development and online modules to support them in delivering new curriculum, expected to be rolled out across all grades over the next several years.

The CBE has also introduced more rigorous tracking tools around attendance and is increasing efforts around communicating with families if students are not coming to school on a regular basis.

“The pandemic impacted health in children and adults, and that definitely caused concerns. But the pandemic also disrupted daily routines, and we know for some families their daily routines have still not come back to where they were before the pandemic,” Pitman said.

“So from a non-punitive standpoint, we need to better help families understand that regular attendance really makes a difference in achievement.

“We’ve enhanced tracking tools … and staff are being supported in a number of ways to reach out to families, invite them in, and communicate that attendance matters, their child matters, and we want them at school.”

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CBE will also look to add administrative resources to better support English-language learners, the majority of whom are refugees or non-Canadians who have arrived here from war-torn areas.

Mike Nelson, interim CBE superintendent school improvement, estimated that of the more than 135,000 students present in CBE classrooms at the end of 2022-23, more than 26,000 were brand new to the district.

And of those students, almost 7,200 arrived midway through the year, with a significant number entering through the Welcome Centre, where CBE assesses refugees and non-Canadian students.

The population of students learning English as an additional language went from 4,554 to 5,508 between 2021-22 and 2022-23.

Pitman said the system is making larger efforts in directing administrators to better support teachers in schools that are seeing higher populations of refugee students and English-language learners.

“We are prioritizing central strategists to coach alongside teachers in classrooms and model effective practices to accelerate language learning,” Pitman said.

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“And we are looking to identify where we may need to provide additional supports for individual schools based on who is in their building, so they have access to small-group instruction or additional instruction.”

A good example are LEAD (Literacy, English and Academic Development) programs for newcomers facing exceptional challenges around poverty, trauma and learning. This year alone, the CBE has gone from 31 to 38 classrooms supporting students in smaller settings.

For example, Forest Lawn High School now has one of the highest number of LEAD classes in the system, where up to 750 of the 1,500 students there are English-language learners.

Among those 750 students, 63 have exceptional needs and are learning in five “LEAD” classes of 12 to 14 students each. Many recently arriving from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea or the Ukraine, have suffered interruptions or delays in schooling because of war, poverty or time spent in refugee camps.

Teachers work with interpreters and use a variety of visual and digital aids to support students who learn at their own pace.

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In providing new and evolving supports to newcomers, Pitman explains the CBE is also working to ensure staff are culturally-responsive and trauma-informed through ongoing professional development and by working alongside experts within the system and in the outside community.

“Through our inclusive education team, our psychologists and community partners, we are working directly with those schools to provide insight on which cultures are in a school, and what supports are the most meaningful based on experts who understand those cultural needs,” Pitman said.

Over the last year, increased partnering with community groups now includes, for instance, refugee and immigrant counselling through Kindred Family Services, which provides direct supports in schools as well as in the community, wherever a family and students need it.

“They are now in nine different schools with direct services to families and students,” Pitman said.

According to this year’s final enrolment data, 7,029 students were added to public schools by the end of September, with more being added each week.

That growth is a 5.4 per cent increase from the previous year, and double what CBE would get in a normal growth year, with newcomers being the primary contributor to that spike.

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