MERIDEN — A series of weekend academic sessions that would eventually be dubbed “Get it Done Saturday” started out as the brainchild of Michael Strumski.
Strumski has worked at Platt High School as a ninth grade transition specialist and also coached indoor track the past several years. In 2018, he spearheaded an informal version of the program that targeted ninth grade students who were on the cusp of passing their classes.
So at least once each academic quarter, during hours beyond the traditional school day, those students would be paired with volunteer tutors. They would work one-on-one, completing work needed to earn passing grades.
For students on the verge of academic success, feeling caught up on school work and overcoming the discouragement and worry one feels when falling behind are enough to help them regain focus.
“We want students to not be so stressed out and anxious, thinking, ‘am I going to pass?’ And to instead focus on that learning piece,” Strumski said of the Saturday sessions.
This past school year, the program was opened up to students across all high school grades as an educator-led initiative to help students achieve academic success despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It happened quarterly at both Platt and Maloney high schools.
A recently issued report from the Connecticut RISE Network found that 71% of the 55 students at Platt and Maloney who participated in the Get It Done Saturday sessions were able to catch up and pass classes where they had previously struggled. Platt and Maloney are among 10 high schools in nine school districts across the state that partner with RISE.
RISE’s report, called “Plugged In,” spotlighted promising efforts of local educators to help students achieve academic success during a school year in which they either attended class in person part-time, or were learning from home full-time.
RISE’s latest report follows up on a previous one the network issued last winter, which highlighted the academic struggles students across its partner schools were facing. The authors of the report noted high numbers of students faced the possibility of not being promoted to the next grade level or not graduating.
Emily Pallin, RISE’s executive director, described the purpose of both reports. First, it was to recognize that the pandemic “was having really profound effects on student engagement and academic success,” Pallin said.
“We felt it was imperative to share that story in the middle of the year so that school communities would still have time to say, ‘This can’t be a lost school year. We need to use this information and pivot to better meet the needs of students.’”
So the report that followed shines a light on what Pallin described as “the incredible creativity and the perseverance and resilience shown by students and educators.” Pallin said what has emerged from the pandemic are promising educational practices.
“How do we learn from this moment and challenge the way we do things post pandemic?” she said.
Meriden officials didn’t have finalized figures regarding the numbers and percentages at Platt and Maloney students who earned enough academic credit to achieve grade promotion or graduation. But preliminary numbers showed rates that appeared similar to pre-pandemic years, a promising sign for local officials. ‘Disjointed’
Strumski, at Platt, described an all hands on deck approach to ensuring students academic success during the last school year. He and other educators found students who were on the cusp of passing their classes simply needed extra time.
“The number one thing we need in school is time — even if it’s just three hours,” Strumski said. It allows educators and students time to work through challenges. It was especially helpful for distance learning students.
“There’s nothing like sitting one on one with a history teacher to get the help you need in that class,” Strumski said.
Joseph Laskowski, a math teacher at Platt, was one of the teachers who worked with students during the Saturday sessions.
Laskowski said the past school year proved to be an outlier. Students who didn’t have academic struggles previously, were struggling under the hybrid in-person, remote and full remote learning models. Learning became “disjointed” for students, Laskowski said. Many took on additional roles in their households, including looking after younger siblings. Supportive environment
Programs like the Saturday sessions should be sustainable through grant and COVID-19 relief funds for at least the upcoming academic year, educators said. Those funds enabled teachers to get paid for what had been volunteer work in prior years.
Whether future funding will be available to maintain the program in future years is a question officials will need to assess.
Laskowski expressed hope that as students and educators return to routines similar to those before the pandemic, such initiatives won’t be as necessary as they were this past year.
“Going forward I would hope there’s less of a need,” he said.
Andrea Fonseca, one of Platt’s assistant principals, said the program especially provided space for her school’s distance learning students. For many students, the experience of learning from home had proven to be stressful and difficult.
So the Saturday sessions provided a supportive environment that was free of stress and distracts, Fonseca said.
“This was a difficult year to say the least. Our teachers wanted to provide students with as much support as possible,” she said. Seizing opportunity
For Marisa LaPlante, a ninth grade transition specialist like Strumski, the overall success of the Saturday programs proved a learning opportunity for educators like her.
“I learned that, if the opportunity is there for some kids — even if it is on a Saturday — they will take it, because they do want to succeed,” LaPlante said. She said for some students it’s easier to accept help in a smaller setting.
“I think they also see teachers and counselors on their time as well on a Saturday just to help them,” LaPlante said. That in itself sends a message to students. “Some of these students see they (their teachers) do care, and that they are here for them,” LaPlante said.