Teacher Benjamin Kimmel and student Luis Lopez could have slept in this week instead of showing up at Andersen United school in Minneapolis for an 8 a.m. bell five days in a row.

Instead, they voluntarily took part in Spring Break Academy, the district’s attempt to help students catch up on skills before this year’s round of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests. And both are glad they did.

Luis liked building a rocket from kits that Kimmel scored for his class. Kimmel had his class write thank-you notes to the donor, a chance to work on their language skills as well. “I like this class better because they do more fun stuff than regular school,” Luis said, also citing the study of animal habitats.

Kimmel, a science teacher, reveled in the chance to work with a class of only 14 students. “You actually have the time to work one on one,” he said.

Andersen is one of 13 Minneapolis schools where students this week spent mornings on academics, mostly reading and math, and afternoons on building other skills. Some also worked on getting familiar with the online MCA test format.

The Spring Break Academy is one of a grab bag of strategies the district is using to try to accelerate student improvement on standardized tests, a mandate the school board gave Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson last fall.

Other strategies have included additional literary and math coaching in the 13 schools, and Saturday classes at selected schools on topics ranging from math and reading catch-up for younger students to making up blown credits or prepping for International Baccalaureate tests for high school peers.

The district plans to assess the impact both by measuring the MCA scores for participants and by interviewing principals about results. It put money aside for continuing those strategies or others in the 2014-2015 school year, even though it doesn’t expect final assessment results until July.

Next school year’s options for trying to boost student skills could include classes over the two-week winter break, a period in which educators worry that some students backslide.

Holding school over a break requires having enough teachers work for pay during their normal days off. Spring break, for example, is traditionally a welcome break in the academic calendar for teachers who use it to recharge their energy for the final nine weeks of the school year.

The district said 159 teachers or other licensed school workers took part, along with an average of 1,803 students daily. Teachers were paid $2,000, but they’re finding other rewards in the classroom. For the nearly 200 students attending the Andersen spring break program, it meant breakfast and lunch, and something to learn, and it kept them off the streets, said Kimmel, one of 16 Andersen teachers who worked this week.

Carrie Hernandez, a math coach working with rotating sets of third-graders, showed them a different way to approach addition to the traditional stacking of numbers atop each other. By doing so, she’s also helping to prepare them for algebra later.

“I feel like I’ve been able to make a larger difference,” she said about the smaller classes. “I’m able to get to everybody and make a difference in the moment.”

For teachers at lower-performing schools, it’s also a preview of the smaller classes they’re supposed to get next school year. The district set a target of 18 students per kindergarten through third-grade teacher, down from 21 this year.


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