Black and Latine Youth Defy Post-Pandemic Learning Loss 

February 23, 2024

By: Dr. Amanda Hill-Hennie, NBCT – Philadelphia, PA

Statewide Assessments Cancelled

This was the headline across all news channels on March 19, 2020. I remember feeling very disappointed because the COVID-19 Pandemic was adding another layer of disruption to my life as a first-year school leader. Being charged with turning around the academic performance of a historically underperforming school took a lot of work. Data from the prior school year and previous leadership revealed that student performance on standardized assessment data declined across all three tested subjects. However, my staff, my students, and I worked tirelessly to improve the state assessment scores of our Black and Latinx student body. Staff were given countless hours of professional development on curriculum implementation and analyzing assessment data. A revised staff evaluation process was also introduced at the beginning of the 19-20 SY, which included student academic performance- not just classroom observations. Little did we know that it would be another two years before we would have a traditional school year or standardized state assessment. 

Learning Loss, Learning Loss, and More Learning Loss

Being charged with leading a school during a global pandemic was a task that was seemingly impossible and often very draining. Having to master the art of remote learning and constantly changing quarantining guidelines took my focus away from academic performance, and we did not have comprehensive assessment data for the 19-20 and 20-21 school years.  The school I led was a neighborhood middle school serving grades 5-8 with a student population that is 51% Hispanic and 36% Black. Additionally, 89% of our students are economically disadvantaged, 25% of our students receive special education services, and 20% of our students are English Learners. After re-evaluating my “Why” for leading schools and engaging in self-care, I was up to lead the transition into a post-pandemic school year. I became a school leader because I believed every student should have access to a high-quality education, regardless of their zip code. 

The 21-22 school year was our first traditional school year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leading a school during the aftermath of a global pandemic that invoked a significant degree of trauma (specifically in Black and Latinx communities) was again no easy task.  I knew I would have to prepare myself and my staff for large degrees of learning loss and halted social-emotional development among our students. I approached the beginning of the school year, understanding that it would take a collective effort to motivate and engage our students in this post-pandemic environment. The 21-22 school year proved to be yet another challenge due to surging COVID-19 cases at the end of 2021, severe staff shortages,  and excessive rates of absenteeism and quarantines. Additionally, students and educators continue to struggle with mental health challenges, higher rates of violence and misbehavior, and concerns about lost instructional time

Re-engaging Scholars Using Culturally Responsive Teaching Competencies

Throughout these challenges, my vision for the 21-22 school year was grounded in two specific culturally responsive teaching competencies:

Promoting Respect for Student Differences and Modeling High Expectations for Students 

 I knew how critical school culture would be to creating a strong learning environment amidst the post-pandemic challenges, so this became my goal. After much debate, I determined that supporting staff in identifying strategies aligned with these two competencies would best support my vision.  To move these competencies into practice, staff engaged in many varied professional learning experiences on the following strategies aligned to the two culturally responsive teaching competencies mentioned above. 

Making grade-level content accessible to all students

Staff prepared small group instruction lessons focusing on analytical writing in ELA and revising exit tickets for Math. This was a data-driven approach to ensure all students accessed and engaged in grade-level content. The small group setting also allowed teachers to work on fostering a growth mindset with students and providing more personalized feedback, strengthening the teacher-student relationship.

Amplifying student voice. 

Staff designed activities to intentionally incorporate student voices into their lessons. At the beginning of the school year, many of these lessons gave students more voice or ownership in the classroom expectations and overall class culture. Staff also designed activities that promoted more peer-to-peer interactions throughout the lesson. Below, you will see examples of teachers using technology to encourage academic discussion and peer feedback, an interactive strategy called “Four Corners” to get students perspective on how to create community, student discussion in a math class using an approach called “Which One Doesn’t Belong?”, and using self-affirmations to build a positive classroom culture.  

The value of taking the time to hone in on these levers paid off in dividends that I did not intend or imagine. I prioritized staff development in these areas to ensure staff was equipped with strategies to keep our Black and Latinx student body motivated and engaged with our school community. The result was not one that I would have never imagined, given the nationwide concerns around post-pandemic learning loss.  

Countering the Learning Loss Narrative and Advancing the Academic Trajectory of Our Scholars 

A significant amount of data cites the excessive learning loss due to the pandemic. One study suggests that “Children lost about 35% of a normal school year’s worth of learning during the pandemic”. 

The data from our 21-22 Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System revealed that our Black and Latinx students exceeded growth expectations in multiple ways. The Average Growth Index is a measure of student growth across the tested grade levels in a district or school. 

What are the multiple ways that our students defied post-pandemic learning loss on our first comprehensive state assessment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • Our students’ growth measures exceeded the growth averages for the state of  Pennsylvania
  • Our students’ growth measures exceeded the growth averages of the schools within our charter network
  • The percentage of English Learner’s who scored proficient doubled in ELA and in Science based on the 18-19 SY (pre-pandemic) assessments. 
  • Our Black, Hispanic, and English Learner students exceeded their growth goal by almost twenty percentage points.
  • Our students also demonstrated proficiency gains from the last pre-pandemic assessment in two of the three tested subjects- all schools within our charter network and our district-wide similar schools group saw declines in proficiency in at least two or more subjects. 
  • The number of teachers within our school whose students demonstrated significant evidence of exceeding the growth standard increased by 40 percentage points based on the 18-19 SY (pre-pandemic) PVAAS data.  

The growth accomplishments of our students are significant because this means their academic trajectory is improving, even amid the turmoil caused by the pandemic. When one staff member reflected on the data, she stated: “We went from not one scholar being on level in the beginning of the year to seven being proficient and 6 being two points away from proficient. This is truly due to the curriculum, policies, and procedures you established or helped strengthen.”  

The impact that promoting respect for student differences and modeling high expectations had on the academic trajectory of our school’s Black and Latinx youth has inspired me to continue exploring the promise of operationalizing culturally responsive teaching competencies. 

Dr. Amanda Hill-Hennie, NBCT

Dr. Amanda Hill-Hennie is a Philadelphia native with over 15 years of experience in Philadelphia's education sector. Dr. Hill-Hennie has served as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, curriculum director, and school principal in public schools, charter schools, and for charter management organizations across the city of Philadelphia. As a classroom teacher, Dr. Hill-Hennie obtained her National Board Certification in Early Adolescent English Language Arts and her students consecutively demonstrated significant evidence that they exceeded the standard for growth on their state standardized assessments. As an instructional coach and curriculum director, Dr. Hill-Hennie supported teachers and school leaders across multiple schools with curriculum implementation, data analysis, standards-aligned instruction, and developing personalized learning models to accelerate all learners. This resulted in multiple schools within the charter network moving into the Reinforce or Model performance tier on their annual School Progress Reports. As a school principal, her school was recognized by Elevate 215 as one of the top 36 schools in Philadelphia that was beating the odds in academic growth for Black and Brown students in the city of Philadelphia. Additionally, she increased the number of teachers in her school that demonstrated significant evidence that their students exceeded the standard for growth on the state standardized assessments by 40% and outperformed the state of Pennsylvania in student growth for all three tested subject areas. She also serves on the board for a local charter school and is a member of Education Leaders of Colors.