ORR Students Get Jump Start

            Having been leveraged by 2020’s challenges into mostly reactive leadership as a new superintendent of schools, Mike Nelson was thrilled to see the Old Rochester School District kick off the 2021-22 academic year with a preseason proactive effort called Acceleration Academy.

            The week-long camp, held August 16-20 from 8:30 am to 2:00 pm at ORR, featured four hours of daily concentrated work and targeted four grade brackets. Grades K-2 focused on early literacy, while Grades 3-4, 8, and 10 focused on math.

            Five days of four classroom hours add up to approximately 20 hours of traditional classroom time or the equivalent of the first two units of the upcoming school year. Roughly, that translates into a month of class work, according to ORR Director of Student Services Craig Davidson.

            “Between Mr. Davidson, Dr. [Janell] Pearson-Campbell, our assistant superintendent of Teaching and Learning and many others, they really spearheaded this work,” said Nelson. “This Acceleration Academy, honestly, was a perfect opportunity for us to show our communities how we’re going to start bridging the gap between the pandemic environment and the new normal here in our schools.

            “I think it was mutual interest in terms of different stakeholder groups. … There have been ongoing conversations even that we had here locally, figuring out, ‘What are the impacts [of the pandemic] and how to we move forward?'”

            Thanks to a grant offered in 2020 by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), ORR was able to secure a full week of services from top instructors outside of collective bargaining. In keeping with the stipulations of the grant funding and using metrics based on academic data, the district’s most-vulnerable students were offered the first opportunity to engage with the program.

            MCAS data, Aimsweb data (ORR’s universal screening), and other benchmark data, including consultation with school principals, was used in identifying students for whom the program would offer the most benefit.

            “We are proud to say we offered a spot to any family that expressed interest based off our survey data,” reported Nelson, who estimated 155 participants.

            Free breakfast and free lunch helped energize the students for their four hours of daily instruction. A daily special class such as physical education, art, or technology was sprinkled in to keep the young minds fresh and nimble.

            “It’s no secret that the pandemic has hit the educational fields really hard, and I applaud the state and the district for looking for ways on how to make up those deficits,” said Old Hammondtown School Grade 6 math teacher Kyle Letendre. “The key is engagement, student engagement, it’s what it’s all about. The Acceleration Academy, the way that the program is designed, it’s meant to really have students focused in on those key core skills and concepts but also have fun while they’re doing it.”

            After conducting its families survey, ORR applied for the grant at the start of the summer. In the end, advanced students learning in the more competitive environments also had the opportunity to get a jumpstart on the 2021-22 academic year.

            Along with Letendre’s assistance, the camp received on site, supervisory support from Rochester Memorial School Assistant Principal Charlie West and Center School Associate Principal Kevin Tavares.

            “The kids have been incredibly responsive,” said West. “Some of the kids were participating in some of the summer programming we already had, but most of them haven’t really had anything this summer … so they’ve jumped right into it and, honestly, have set the tone.”

            Thanks to the availability of teachers and administrators, students in transitional stages of their education were able to engage the camp under the watch of familiar faces and future instructors on hand in the same classroom.

            The program defines accelerated learning as “providing high quality, grade-level instruction tailored to the students in front of you.”

            Nelson explained that, while the tendency might be to focus on the remedial, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts, accelerated learning has been proven to be the more effective strategy in boosting students for the new school year.

            “A lot of folks think from the remedial standpoint, ‘What did we miss?’ The research that the Department of [Education] has shared with public school districts is that the research is clear that remedial instruction is not the best broad stroke approach to take,” said Nelson. “Instead, accelerated learning, which is keeping all students with their peers and offering them grade-level, high quality instruction is the best way to accelerate learning.”

By Mick Colageo

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