'How can I teach my child if I'm just as lost?': How parents want to address learning loss

Laura Testino
Memphis Commercial Appeal

The four siblings sat around one edge of the table, fixated on the math problems lighting up their tablets. First grader Major Dorse determined how many frogs were in a pond. Next to him, his big sister, Alexis Dorse, added fractions on a piece of scrap paper, a math assignment for other fifth graders.

On the other edge of the table, Porsha Holloway squeezed between third grader Cseriah Starks and fourth grader Sincere Dorse to help Sincere with his math homework. Holloway has looked up YouTube videos throughout the pandemic to help her understand how her kids are learning math, which is different from the way she learned math while enrolled in Memphis public schools.

Her kids, students at Vollentine Elementary School, have been virtual learners for most of the last year. Home became school, and Holloway learned more about what her kids were learning in class. But it magnified how much she didn't know about what they were learning. They were improving in some areas, like reading, but she didn't know how to help them more.

Holloway had questions: "How can I teach my child if I'm just as lost as him? Or, how can my child understand if I can't understand?" 

"We had to go to a better plan to where everyone understands," Holloway said recently, standing alongside parent advocacy group Memphis Lift. "Not only the child, but the parent too." 

Vollentine Elementary School student Cseriah Starks, Sincere Dorse, Alexis Dorse and Major Dorse do their homework after virtual school hours, on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

She's supportive of the group's push for concise, individualized plans for student learning that translate a child's progress in class to language parents can understand. Memphis Lift began advocating for Shelby County Schools to use the plans last summer, and gathered in a recent March press conference to thank the district for adopting the plans for families to use.

The plans, called "My child's learning path," puts attendance and assessment scores in one place, breaking down how a student compares among peers and what the student can do to improve, both in class and at home. 

More:The fifth quarter: SCS prepares for thousands to attend class over shortened summer

Using those plans, Memphis Lift advocates say, will also allow parents to know how to help their kids in school, and mitigate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning. When Memphis Lift surveyed 1,000 parents over the summer, learning loss was most concerning to most parents, said Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis Lift.

“They watched their kids struggling" to learn outside of school buildings, Carpenter said. "That’s what kept rising to the top. So we took it to the district.”

Memphis Lift will work with the district to familiarize parents with the plan throughout the spring and summer, and expect to see it implemented for next school year. Carpenter said she is thankful for SCS' collaboration.

Sarah Carpenter

'It's totally different'

A year ago, when SCS school buildings closed in March, the rest of the spring was unstructured learning time for most students. Learning remotely wasn't mandatory, and for students who did log on, some were seeing their teacher from a cell phone screen in the car. Over the summer, the district devoted federal relief funding to addressing some equity issues of remote learning, providing each student with a device and giving internet hotspots to families in need.

Once school resumed in August, it was completely virtual but much more structured. Only recently, this March, did the district reopen buildings to the one-third of students who opted to return. 

More:Back to school: How many students are returning to each SCS school building Monday?

More:A first in more than 350 days, Shelby County Schools students learn inside classrooms

Most families, including Holloway and husband Cser Dorse, still chose to keep their kids at home. The kids work through their traditional 3 p.m. airing of Family Feud, and even working around one another, there are less distractions at home than what Holloway said her kids encountered with their classmates in school buildings.

Memphis parent Porsha Holloway, helps her son Sincere Dorse who attends Vollentine Elementary School, with his homework after virtual school hours, on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Only recently have their four children gone to their local Boys and Girls Club for remote learning camp a couple days each week, a way to ease back into safe in-person learning, Holloway said. 

After school, they've attended some of the district's "data nights," intended to inform families about how students are doing in class and how in interpret their recent assessment scores.

"It is complicated listening to the things that they say," Holloway said. She explained that because some elements of the curriculum have also changed, it's even more of a learning process. 

Dorse said he's learned to ask more questions, but elaborated their frustrations with one practical example from a recent math session: "I tried to teach them my way, with the fingers," he said. "They said, 'No dad, they don't do it like that.' They write dots. It's totally different."

Vollentine Elementary School student Cseriah Starks, Sincere Dorse, Alexis Dorse and Major Dorse do their homework after virtual school hours, on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

'What's that role in the home?'

With Memphis Lift's proposed guide, parents can look at each student's plan to break down data presented in the usual data nights into smaller pieces. In the view of Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children Tennessee, the plan translates the data to information to then knowledge that's usable for parents, and not just for people in education familiar with student tests.

With so many assessments and assignments, it can be difficult to keep track of what each measures and how important those impacts are, Orrin said, giving the example of the district's reading retention policy. 

‘Third grade is too late’:SCS to forge ahead with second grade reading retention policy

Stand for Children supported Memphis Lift in their efforts to implement the plan, Orrin said, because it was a moment where the wants and needs of students, teachers and parents aligned. While parents have always wanted to become more involved, the window virtual learning provided many parents magnified those needs.

"Because (before COVID-19) you had the portion of the school day that you were trusting the teacher and school to educate the child. And while we're still trusting the teacher to educate the child, they're not in the schools," Orrin said. "...(students are) in homes. So I think there's a little bit, even more responsibility felt around, you know, what's that role in the home? Because that's where they've (kids have) been."

Cardell Orrin of Stand for Children speaks for a group of educators and community leaders gathered outside of the Shelby County Administration Building downtown for a 'Fund Students First Public Rally' with budget requests for school facility investments, pre-k funding and other academic initiatives, while county commissioners meet to discuss Shelby County School's budget on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

'A step in the right direction'

When the district has presented student assessment data this year, little of it has been comparative year over year or comparative with other data collected from this year, officials have explained. The tests measure student progress and achievement in different areas, in some cases against standards they should have learned, in other cases against standards they should be learning, and in other cases still, against how they perform relative to their peers. 

Over the last year, Antonio Burt, the district's chief academic officer, has cautioned using one set of data to determine learning loss related to COVID-19. Rather, he has said, it will take much data over months and years to determine the effect the pandemic has had on student learning.

Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district's academic chief.

More:Memphis gets its first look at virtual learning data. Here’s what it shows.

More:SCS learning loss: More students are behind in math than reading, early tests show

In Burt's view, the learning plan is a natural next step for SCS, building upon relatively new dashboards of holistic student data. The learning plan presents parents with "a bird's eye view," he said, of how students are doing and where and how they can improve. He agrees that for many parents, the pandemic has magnified a desire for the information because many are more directly involved in how a student is learning in class.

"(Parents are) seeing what the (student's) struggles are," Burt said. "...(and) what the struggles are may not just be on their child, it could be how (the material) is being presented, communicated." 

The plan he said, is "a step in the right direction" toward informing parents of student supports.

Vollentine Elementary School student Cseriah Starks, Sincere Dorse, Alexis Dorse and Major Dorse do their homework after virtual school hours, on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

For the Holloways, the pandemic has also brought into focus a hope that their kids can learn practical skills and trades in school, like how to pay bills and build credit or even how to identify the plants they want to grow or may have allergies to. The learning plan, they agree, brings into focus a need for a continued conversation where they can speak the school district's language and the school district can speak their language, too.

"A lot of things that our kids don't understand," Holloway said, "we come together as parents to try to make it better."

Laura Testino covers education and children's issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at laura.testino@commercialappeal.com or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino