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By Mary Niederberger

Addison Boehm, Kerria Scanlon and Tamia Day, all soon-to-be sixth graders in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, had their heads bent over a laptop and a small robot made of Legos as they worked together on a recent morning in a classroom at Pittsburgh Langley K-8.

“You are in control so you are telling him step by step how to move,” said Tyler Scheuering, the teacher instructing them on how to create coding to determine the robot’s movement.

Before they could make it turn right, left or backward, the students had to figure out what mathematical portion of a complete turn the movement would require.

Scheuering posed this scenario: “If I’m facing forward and I do a full spin it’s 360 degrees. What if I do a half spin? What is half of 360?”

After a few incorrect guesses by the students, Tamia opened her phone’s calculator and divided 360 by 2. “It’s 180 degrees,” she announced to the group. From there, the trio determined that it would take 90 degrees to make a perpendicular turn to the right or left and 45 degrees to make a shorter turn. They were then able to type their calculations into the coding on the laptop and watch the robot follow their commands.

Summer BOOST

The exercise was a math lesson designed to fill in the gaps of lost learning that students experienced during the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Summer BOOST program, which was created last year.

“We launched BOOST last summer as an intentional response to serving students after the school closures and remote learning of 2020 and 2021,” said Christine Cray, director of Student Services Reforms at PPS.

Pittsburgh students learned via paper packets for the last quarter of 2020 when the pandemic closed schools across the state. For nearly all of the 2020-2021 school year they learned remotely on laptops, returning to class full time in September 2021.

Last summer, district leaders were without significant data to show the extent of academic losses because the 2020 PSSAs for students in grades 3-8 and state Keystone Exams for secondary students were canceled. The state tests were resumed in spring 2021, but the Pittsburgh district took advantage of an extension that allowed it to administer the tests in fall 2021.

Those results weren’t available until early March and showed scores were down significantly in Pittsburgh and in a number of other districts across the state. The results were not unexpected given the pandemic’s disruption of education.

In the Pittsburgh schools, the PSSAs showed math proficiency among students in grades 3-8 was alarmingly low, especially among Black students. District assessments showed similar results. The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported on the issue last month, citing math proficiency rates of 0% at five Pittsburgh elementary schools.

This year, armed with state data and internal district assessments, the BOOST leadership team was better able to design curriculum geared to help fill in the gaps in math skills and deficiencies in English language arts.

The BOOST daily schedule includes 90-minute blocks of math and English language arts, time for social and emotional learning activities and opportunities for enrichment experiences through outside vendors. Those opportunities include programs through  Venture OutdoorsSnapology and SLB Youth Express. Other areas of enrichment include sewing, weaving, flag football and lyrical movement and theater.

The free program operates Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. It started July 5 and will run through July 29, staffed by 122 PPS teachers and other personnel including counselors, nurses, paraprofessionals and physical and occupational therapists. It is funded with district money, federal pandemic funds and a $12,000 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Photo by Mary Niederberger

Students in teacher Bobbi Vargo’s math class follow her directions in converting days to hours. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

Districtwide, 1,400 students in grades K-7 are registered for the program which is operating out of Langley, Pittsburgh Arlington and Pittsburgh Obama. The program is extended to 12th grade for students with Individualized Education Programs and they attend BOOST at their home schools of Pittsburgh Conroy, Pittsburgh Oliver Citywide Academy and Pittsburgh Pioneer.

Chronic absenteeism that permeated the school year in Pittsburgh has also affected the summer program. The most recent measure of chronic absenteeism during the regular school year was about 42 percent across the district. On a recent visit to the BOOST program at Langley, some classrooms were about 50-60% full.

Maintaining regular summer attendance, particularly in a voluntary program, is difficult. “We’re competing with a lot of things in the summer,” Cray said. But she also noted that getting students back to regular attendance after the pandemic has been a struggle.

Another math lesson

Students who were in attendance at the Langley site were working hard on math.

In a fourth grade class, students were learning conversions using measurements of time. In a word problem, dictated by teacher Bobbi Vargo, the students were told it took three years to build the RMS Titanic ocean liner.

Students were then asked to convert the construction time into days, hours and minutes, while working collaboratively in teams. A student hand shot up as soon as the assignment was given. “Are any of the years leap years?” he asked.

The question at first drew a chuckle from Vargo, who then quickly acknowledged that a leap year would affect the calculations.

Photo by Mary Niederberger

Teacher Bobbi Vargo helps a group of students in her class with math conversions. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

The first task — converting the years to days. One group used multiplication to get the answer. But another used repeated addition.

“So you can multiply or you can do repeated addition” to get the correct answer of 1,095, Vargo said.

The next task – converting days to hours – required a review of long-form multiplication to get to the answer of 26,280. The calculation had students working collaboratively, helping each other with the skill.

Fun with an English language arts lesson

In teacher Elaine Yellin’s fourth grade English language arts class, students were busy drawing up plans for a Monster Hotel. As with the math lessons, the students worked collaboratively in small groups, making decisions and planning and using their vocabulary, imagination, spelling and math.

Students Mashara Uwezo and Jaelle Naregoto used language and spelling skills to design mottos and logos for their hotel and to describe the rooms and suites and the ambiance they hoped to portray. When they weren’t sure of their spelling, they wrote words out phonetically.

The girls want their Monster Hotel to “be a place where monsters can do whatever they want to do to relax,” Jaelle said. People are welcome to “if they are not too scared,” she added.

Their hotel’s slogan: “Have a spooky day!” In the elevators, the girls wrote that they want the background music to include rattling chains, banging noises and scary voices. They used their math skills to purchase furnishings on a budget for their rooms and suites.

The next step in the project is to build a diorama of their work in a box.

“I like to think of big projects where the kids can work together cooperatively,” said Yellin, who is a teacher at the district’s gifted center during the school year. “They seem to be enjoying it. They are having fun while they are learning.”.

Summer BOOST store

To encourage regular attendance, positive behavior and extra efforts, each BOOST site has a store where students can purchase prizes with points they’ve earned through their actions. A sign at Langley said 5 points could be earned for attendance, good behavior and examples of “going beyond.”

The prize items range from small toys, lip gloss, balls, water bottles and games to headphones that require 1,000 points. They were purchased with funds from The Pittsburgh Foundation grant.

Photo by Mary Niederberger

Social worker Tanya Ashby helps students to decide if they want to use their points for prizes or save them for later. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

Students visit the room weekly and while there make decisions about whether to spend their accrued points on a smaller item or wait until the end of the program to select a larger item such as the headphones

Tanya Ashby, a social worker at Pittsburgh King who works as the counselor at the Langley site, guides students through the store, explaining their options. “If you want to buy something on the higher price tables you will have to save your points for your next shopping trip,” Ashby said.

For some, the lure of the more extravagant items had them refraining until they could earn more points. But others chose to spend their accrued points on a more immediate reward. One young girl displayed with a big smile the red lip gloss she chose in exchange for several points.

“Hey, if a $2 lipstick keeps a student coming back to the program, it is money well spent,” Cray said.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at niederbergerme@gmail.com & on Twitter @MaryNied.

This story is a part of PLAYING THE LONG GAME: Rebounding from unfinished learning, an on going series about pandemic learning in Pittsburgh made possible by support from The Grable Foundation.