Educators to lean into data and each other to design action plans and interventions for kids struggling and those in need of credit recovery

by Jim Boyle


The Elk River Area School Board learned at a Sept. 30 work session students who have failed a class will, in some cases, have an option to retake portions of the class without having to take it all over.

It’s one of the ways the Elk River Area School District administrators are looking at helping students who have struggled during the pandemic, especially high school students who are nearing graduation.

But there are lots of other interventions happening before it gets to the place where a child is missing credits they need to graduate.

“We don’t ever want to lose focus on our students,” Superintendent Dan Bittman said. “We have students that absolutely thrived during the pandemic. We have students who absolutely struggled — not only from an academic standpoint. It could be from a mental health standpoint, from a food standpoint.”

Bittman said it was his hope at the work session that board members would take away from the meeting how hard district officials are working to identify students who are struggling and students who are thriving, and, secondly, once they have been identified the district provides intense programs to get kids caught up so they can graduate.

“The other thing we have done is developed programs during the day outside the day,” Bittman said. “We are not going to let the pandemic be the reason our kids do not graduate. That is not us. That is not our district.

“Kids will have numerous opportunities for success, unless they don’t want to succeed. They’re going to have to work harder not to succeed than they would to graduate.”


Will Campbell, the assistant superintendent in charge of elementary education, said it is exciting to be talking about instruction when so much time recently is spent talking about the pandemic. He offered some context for the student experience, noting the district’s kindergarten, first grade and second grade students have not experienced a normal school year yet.

And the last time sixth grade students experienced a normal year, they were in the third grade. Similarly, seventh graders were in fourth grade and seniors were freshmen.

“The pandemic has had an impact on student learning,” Campbell said. “We’re not allowing that to be an excuse, but we’re keeping that in mind.”

Campbell said school officials are recognizing a decrease in early reading proficiency for students in grades K-2.

“Said another way, our students showing up in the fall of 2019 are (at a different place) than they are now,” he said.

The school district still ranked in the top three or four in the state, “but we saw decreases in the areas of reading, math and science as measured by MCAs,” he said.

He also said a greater number of high school students are in need of credit recovery after having failed one or more classes.

Educators are using reading assessments to help develop targeted lessons for whole groups and small groups. Similarly, supports are being added at the middle school level.

PLCs being leaned into, speaker coming

Professional Learning Communities are being leaned into even more, and the district is bringing in a nationally renowned speaker on the topic.

Anthony Muhammad, Ph.D., of Solution Tree, is billed as a much-sought-after educational speaker. A practitioner for nearly 20 years and author, he has served as a middle school teacher, assistant principal, and principal, and as a high school principal. His work is focused on how to make PLCs work well.

PLCs ask four essential questions:

• What do we want our students to learn (standards)?

• How will we know they learned it (assessments)?

• How will we respond for the student who didn’t get it?

• How will we extend learning for students who are already proficient?

Kari Rock, the assistant superintendent in charge of secondary, outlined other supports for young people.

“We have been strategic, looking at professional development and what data do they need to help make decisions about what students need,” Rock said.

Educlimber, a data warehousing tool, takes a comprehensive view of the whole child from behavior, attendance, grades, so teachers are seeing more than just their math and reading scores.

“They can see everything all at once,” Rock said.

This helps teachers help students at the student level, classroom level, grade level and building level.

“It allows administrators to know where are the needs of my building and what do I need to provide for support or professional development,” Rock said, adding each building has had trainers train two people to be trainers on this subject. Joe Stangler, the director of testing and assessment, is putting together a plan to make it part of a professional practice.


Supporting high schoolers has been another big endeavor.

“One of the things I say often is nothing changes a student’s trajectory in life more than not graduating high school on time,” Rock said.

The district has students who were on track to graduate who struggled and now find themselves not on track.

“That’s a big deal,” Rock said. “We want to make sure students have a plan and a path to graduation. For some kids distance learning was really hard.”

Rock said high school is about academic skills, and it’s also about credits. Students need 43 credits to graduate, and some are specific by course, even if you have the required number of credits.

“We have been working out a plan with the high school principal — all four high schools — to see who’s at risk,” Rock said. “No one wants to hear in January or February, ‘Your kid is not going to graduate.’ ”

Part of the plan is to send a letter or make a phone call to families, inviting them in to look at needs and create a plan, Rock said.

After that the plan is to monitor progress through advisory periods and school counselors.

They are also looking at opportunities during the day (during study hall) to work on credit recovery for students who have acquired most of the skills and knowledge to pass a class but may have two or three standards that were not met. This is something the Minnesota Department of Education has been focused on, Rock said.

“Let’s get kids what they need to show proficiency in the standards and then we’ll award you the credit,” Rock said.

Bittman said it used to be for a kid who failed English 9, they had to go to summer school. Under this process, if a student passed 90% of the class but failed two units on two topics, they would only re-take those portions.

This could mean a couple of days’ worth of work or a few weeks’ worth of work, he said. District officials are working to create specialized plans for recovery that utilize time during school, outside of school and summer school.

“It’s personalizing that plan for each kid,” Bittman said.

Rock said it’s easier for a student to complete this work closer to the time that initially had the direct instruction, the assessment or paper.

“We’re continuing to evolve,” Rock said, noting that incomplete assignments are also being considered to help kids who were just about there.

The district is prioritizing high school seniors for this type of intervention, and they are tapping one-time federal dollars for the staffing of it.

Traditional credit recovery begins during the year with night school, which starts at 2:30 p.m. and happens over the summer, too.

Ivan Sand Community High School, an alternative learning center, is serving 117 students, its largest population yet.

“Principal (Deanne) Chiodo and her team do an amazing job,” Rock said, noting the school has smaller class sizes and an exceptionally committed group of educators providing individualized learning plans.

As for special education students, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law speaking to how educators ensure district students who had learning loss have a plan in place to address that by Dec. 1 and includes an IEP meeting with family to discuss progress.

Going forward

School Board Member Shane Steinbrecher asked Rock and Campbell if this new way of doing credit recovery will effectively prepare students for the real world.

“I recognize during the pandemic students didn’t get the full learning needed in a different learning model,” Steinbrecher said. “When students go out in the real world, if they fail a course and they go back for these one or two pieces, is that preparing them for the real world and next step?”

Rock called it a great question.

“We often look at it in terms of, if you show proficiency, why would you have to re-show proficiency?” she said. “Under old structures, some kids will say it’s too much work if I have to start over, and there’s no way I can do all this.

“We feel like it gives kids an opportunity to stay on track and graduate rather than become overwhelmed.”

She said it’s a growth mindset.

Bittman said under the old structure, it’s like asking your child to do a worksheet with 50 problems when they have already shown they can do the five hardest problems.

Steinbrecher said he will be interested to hear about this as it goes along and what the administrators learn from it.

Rock said another key element educators are working with students on is advocating for themselves on how they seek support if they don’t understand.

Bittman said with all the information teachers will be gathering on students, it will be the district’s responsibility to do something about it.

“It’s not OK to just know it,” he said. “The onus is on us to do something.”

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