By Thalia Theodore Washington
Higher Achievement has served middle school students in DC for 45 years as an afterschool academic enrichment and mentoring program. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Higher Achievement Centers operated in six DC Public Schools across the city, offering three or four evenings of programming each week to 400 students.
Since April, Higher Achievement has delivered 100% virtual programming to students who attend our six partner schools. Our staff and volunteer mentors have worked hard to retain the middle school scholars who participated in our program in person. Yet just as schools in DC and across the country have struggled with attendance since virtual learning began, Higher Achievement is currently serving about 50% of the scholars who were enrolled in our program last school year. We have capacity to serve many more middle school students in need of academic tutoring and support in the city, and with closer collaboration and communication between out-of-school-time providers like Higher Achievement and DC schools, we could work together to ensure that no students are falling through the cracks during this crisis.
In our virtual model, every student receives 2.5 hours per week of free, core academic programming, which includes:
- 1-hour Math Pod: Math pods provide small group math tutoring to help students improve their math skills by practicing grade-aligned content, providing a safe space to ask questions and receive differentiated support, and supporting students in completing homework and asynchronous assignments.
- 1 hour Small Group Mentoring: 5th through 7th graders participate in small-group English Language Arts mentoring, guided by trained adult volunteers, with a focus on building grade-appropriate reading and writing skills. 8th graders participate in small-group high school placement mentoring guided by a trained adult volunteer to support scholars through the lottery, selective public, and private school application processes and help them plan for a successful transition to high school.
- 30-Minute Community Meeting: These meetings build a program culture that values academic success, fosters positive peer relationships, and engages scholars in structured development of social emotional skills.
When the pandemic forced classes to shift online in the spring, Higher Achievement scholar Byron was thrown into a whole new world of virtual learning. But he didn’t let this challenge stand in the way of preparing for success in high school: in the fall, he chose to jump ahead an extra math level to take Algebra I. He credits Higher Achievement for being ready for this big jump.
My Algebra I class is harder work, so it’s helpful to have more time and practice. In my math pod at Higher Achievement we get to cover whatever I need help on that was confusing or I didn’t understand.
Byron, 8th Grade scholar at Brookland Middle School (Ward 5)
Meeting Social and Emotional Needs
As an out-of-school-time provider working with middle school students, we also pay special attention to the social emotional health of our scholars and provide the extra support so many families need right now to ensure their students are able to keep up with their schoolwork. Our staff dedicates time each week to calling, emailing, and texting scholars and families to maintain weekly touchpoints during this challenging time. We log attendance weekly and make calls home to any scholars who do not attend. We also log the reason for absences to see trends in the data that prevent scholars from fully engaging, such as sibling care, sickness, or technology issues. Once per quarter staff schedule one-on-one family meetings with each scholar and a guardian for a deeper conversation on how they’re doing, what challenges the student is facing in school or at home, and how Higher Achievement can best support the scholar.
We are confident that there are many DC middle school students who would benefit from academic tutoring, mentoring from trained, caring, adult volunteers, social-emotional support, and structured peer connection. Higher Achievement has the capacity to serve many more middle school students than we are currently. Our centers in Wards 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 all have openings for additional scholars, but in particular we have greater capacity in Wards 7 and 8. Again, with cooperation from DC school leaders, we could find out who needs help the most and get them engaged and back on track.
Half-Day Intensive Instruction
During Summer 2020, we demonstrated success in delivering virtual academic programming to scholars who had not previously participated in our program. We partnered with Prince George’s County Public Schools to run a 4-week virtual summer enrichment program serving 120 students from four Title 1 schools across the county. The county identified students who could particularly benefit from our intensive enrichment and invited them to participate. Students attended two classes each week — one 75-minute math class and one 75-minute ELA class — taught live by Higher Achievement teachers.
Whether after school or during the summer, we know that the Higher Achievement model is effective at engaging students, enabling them to stay on track or exceed grade level expectations, and plan for successful futures. We also know that thousands of DC students are struggling right now with virtual school. With appropriate support from OSSE and DCPS, Higher Achievement and other out-of-school time providers can meet those critical needs.
Thalia Theodore Washington is the Executive Director, External Affairs of Higher Achievement DC Metro.