Beating the Achievement Gap One Vacation at a Time
A suburban district also uses formal before- and after-school programs for remediation and enrichment

Marguerite Rizzi (center), superintendent in Stoughton, Mass., with learning time specialist Lynda Feeney (left) and high school principal Juliette Miller.
Unless they teach in a homogenous, high-income school setting, most educators struggle with the achievement gap. When distilled to its essence, the student learning gap can be attributed to the lack of academic readiness.

To make up the deficit, students must have more time — more time for reading, more time for the cultural and artistic experiences that upper-middle-class students have regularly, more exposure to meaningful material and more time working with teachers who can help them understand what they don’t know.

In Stoughton, a diverse, blue-collar school district of 3,700 students south of Boston, Mass., we have found a way to do this, one vacation at a time, and using before-school and after-school hours for additional academic support and enrichment.

An Extra Year
We have created camps for student learning during each school vacation, filled with ways to explore, reason, experiment, build confidence, increase academic prowess and connect all of these things together. The three-day February camp during winter break is focused on humanities, the three-day April camp during spring break addresses STEM. The Knights of Summer Camp, held for five weeks in July and August, offers both curriculum areas. Physical activities are part of all Stoughton schools camps.

If a student attends our camps from 2nd grade to 5th grade, that child will have attended almost one year more of school than the average 6th grader, the precious extra time he or she needs to beat the achievement gap.

We use Aimsweb, a web-based tool for tracking student progress and data management, to monitor all of our students’ reading and math levels several times a year. Students participating in the summer programs score about 70 percent, in the average or above average range on these measures, and students enrolled in the before- and after-school sessions and camps show distinctly lower levels of regression on the fall baseline tests administered each year.

We use time before and after school for support and enrichment programs at all five of our schools. We provide a preschool class for under-resourced 4-year-olds and summer transition classes for kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, 6th grade and 9th grade. Most students are not globally behind in any given year, so by identifying the areas of weakness and supporting them in an intense summer program, we avoid removing the students from their cohort, as happens when they are kept back. We also avoid promoting them into an environment with their peers where they would not experience success.

A Persuasive Case
By building capacity, budget and interest over several years, we now are able to provide a robust level of service to a significant number of children.

To encourage wide participation, we had to offer a late bus at each school to remove the barrier of transportation for some parents. We also partnered with our daycare provider to extend its services beyond 5 p.m. for those parents who still require child care at the end of our program.

Because extended learning time is not one of our many state-mandated services, we had to make the argument that directing precious local dollars for these purposes was worthwhile. We started planning five years ago and folded the programs into our triennial improvement plans over four years, growing the dollar amount gradually while collecting evidence of our success along the way.

The process began with a modest $24,000 in the district’s operating budget in 2013. By adding about that much every year, we are able to offer all this programing for $115,000 in the current school year, a small percentage of our $45 million annual budget. We also used our Title 1 money to target our neediest students, assigning at least 51 percent of our places to them, and Title 3 money to provide support to English language learners.

By making the offerings exciting, engaging and rich in content, the program has become highly attractive to all of our families across the socioeconomic spectrum, attracting those who could afford other options.

Expanding Participation

A districtwide STEM Showcase Night takes place in Stoughton, Mass., which has developed ways to add instructional hours for students.

Academic support to address student skill deficits runs parallel to enrichment programs, which include topics such as wellness, art, literacy, pre-engineering, geography and astronomy as well as book clubs, math games, acting in Broadway-style shows, jewelry making, creative writing, yoga and Legos projects.

Flexibility of scheduling enables students to participate in both remediation and enrichment throughout the year. Enrichment provides the advantages of a gifted and talented program without the stigmatizing identification process.

These programs are creating measurable improvements on standardized assessments. Just as important, the students and parents are voting enthusiastically with their presence. Our Knights of Summer program has grown from 97 participants in 2013 to almost 250 in 2017.

Because the achievement gap begins well before a child enters school, we also have introduced a transitional pre-K to kindergarten class and a kindergarten to 1st-grade transitional class. These transitional programs bolster the skills and confidence of our youngest children who might not be quite prepared to learn in the next grade and have prevented all of them from repeating a grade. We also include the students whose parents have asked that they be held back a year. By identifying the areas of weakness and sup-porting them in an intense summer program, we increase the chance of success, confidence and love of learning.

At the middle-school level, we have instituted a pre-engineering program to boost confidence, promote disciplined scientific thinking in a fun setting and provide a feeder program for our successful high school engineering program. The enrichment offerings in elementary school support this program by providing opportunities for our younger students to work with robotics and rocket kits, as well as educational Legos products that are used during and outside of the school day.

At Stoughton High School, we have instituted a mandatory after-school program, staffed with teachers and counselors, for all 9th graders who have two or more F’s in the first progress reporting period. The students stay in the program until they have achieved passing status — essentially meaning we simply will not tolerate failure.

The high school program is funded through the district budget, at roughly $17,000 a year. The Stoughton School Committee gave the administration the ability to require attendance by adopting a policy to that effect in 2013. To institutionalize the message that failure by any student is not acceptable in Stoughton, we have extended the program down to our middle school, reducing failure rates there and, perhaps more importantly, helping students develop strategies to address failure themselves.

Restorative Purpose
While no student wants to be made to stay after school, the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, a parent member of the all-district council has asked why seats cannot be offered to students who have D’s in several courses. “Why wait till they fail?” she reasonably queried. As the budget allows, that might be the direction in which the program expands.

An active student athlete, required to participate in the extended school day program in place of his sport, had this to say about the program: “It helped me. It pulled me out of football and made me want to focus to get back on the field. I took it serious because I wanted to play and now I am doing way better than I did in my freshman year.”

Rather than being punitive or reactionary, the high school program is restorative and proactive. We provide small-group, specialized instruction in math, English, history and science courses offered at the 9th-grade level as well as assistance in elective courses. Additionally, students learn executive functioning skills, such as time management and organization, and have access to resources they may not have at home, such as computers, internet access and research materials.

Eric, a 10th-grade student who participated in the program last year, conceded that staying after school had a significant impact. He said, “Being there every day, having a set schedule to do my homework and getting work done helped me.”

The remediation and enrichment programs look different as they are as tailored for preschoolers, elementary pupils or secondary students, but the goal at all levels is the same: Give students more time on what they need and want without removing them from the school day curriculum and do this at a manageable cost.

MAGGIE RIZZI is superintendent of Stoughton Public Schools in Stoughton, Mass. Twitter: @DrMCRizzi. JULIETTE MILLER is principal of Stoughton High School and LYNDA FEENEY is Stoughton’s extended school year, data and extended learning time specialist.