Urban School Leaders Highlight Progress After the Pandemic

  • At the Council of the Great City Schools’ recent Annual/Legislative Policy Conference, conferees heard from superintendents of four urban school districts that outpaced national pandemic academic recovery rates in reading, math or both, according to the Education Recovery Scorecard, a joint study by researchers from Stanford University and Harvard University.

    North Carolina’s Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools exceeded a half-year above a normal year of growth in reading and math. Tricia McManus, who has led the school district since 2020, credits the district’s focus on instruction, academics, and culture.  

    “We had not adopted a core curriculum in reading for 10 years,” McManus  recalled. The district changed its core instruction programs for mathematics and reading, with teachers receiving training in the science of reading.  

    All schools received a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum, and the district had teams of coaches supporting schools in the implementation of the curriculum. “We have done training across the board on trauma-informed practices because so many of our students came back from the pandemic and [were] -- even before the pandemic -- just dealing with a lot of trauma,” said McManus.

    The district rewrote its code of character, conduct, and support; and it focused on moving away from exclusionary discipline practices to implementing more restorative interventions. “I don't think you can focus on instruction without also focusing heavily on culture,” said McManus.

    Supporting Educators in Philadelphia

    The Education Recovery scorecard found that the School District of Philadelphia exceeded national recovery rates in reading and mathematics. Under the leadership of Tony Watlington, who has led the district since 2022, the district has focused on supporting its teachers as well as its principals.

    “We know the research says that the second most impactful factor for quick, urgent academic growth involves a highly qualified, well supported, stable principal over time,” said Watlington. “So, the question is how do we get our most effective teachers and our most effective principals with the children who need them the most?”

    The district worked collaboratively with unions and has focused on filling gaps in teachers’ math knowledge and their pedagogy.

    According to the Education Recovery scorecard, Chicago Public Schools’ 3rd- to 8th-grade students ranked first in post-pandemic reading gains and in the top third in math gains.

    CEO Pedro Martinez credited the district’s success to several initiatives, including providing high-dosage tutoring in reading to students in grades K-5, and in math to students in grades 6-12. More than 600 students in 229 schools have participated, with 10,000 students benefiting.

    The district has spent more than $30 million to provide SEL resources and services to students, and approximately $16 million to hire additional counselors in schools with the greatest needs. The school system has also expanded access to community mental health providers and partnerships.

    Students in Metro Nashville Public Schools made improvements from 2022 to 2023 of  half a grade-level equivalent above typical growth in math and nearly one-third a grade-level equivalent above typical growth in reading.

    Superintendent Adrienne Battle said the district implemented a research-based high-dosage tutoring program called Accelerating Scholars, which has given more than 8,000 students 90 minutes of tutoring each week with school staff, full-time tutors, and community partners.

    In addition, the school district adopted high-quality instructional materials in mathematics and provided teachers with coaching.

    The gains made by students in the Winston-Salem, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Nashville school systems are evidence that the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) investment in urban schools is working. Yet, those funds will end in September, leaving school districts with the difficult challenge of deciding which programs to continue funding and which programs to end.

    Winston-Salem school system hired a person to evaluate programs the district has implemented with federal funds over the last three years. “We took certain people and roles that we added, or programs we added, and worked to evaluate those,” said McManus.

    ESSER funds have been utilized to hire 37 multi-language personnel who will help schools communicate effectively with families who don’t speak English. The district initially used ESSER funds to add 17 literacy coaches at the elementary level but will now use Title I funds to pay for the coaches.

    Watlington believes one of the best investments the Philadelphia school system made is reallocating $70 million of ESSER funding this year to purchase a math curriculum. ESSER funds will also be utilized to adopt an English-Language Arts curriculum aligned with the science of reading, and to purchase a new science curriculum, something the district has not had in 20 years.

    Watlington says his team is looking at programs that are working and where they are getting a return on investment.

    “We’re taking a look at every program to figure out what is driving the fastest improvement so we can put more resources together and sunset some of the other things that don’t work.”