Making Academic Progress during COVID-19:
Letters from our Founder

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Making the Best of a Disrupted School Year

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

We are happy to share with you some words of wisdom from a great colleague of ours, Dr. Lionel Allen. We started working with Dr. Allen almost a decade ago at Urban Prep Academies as we helped build out their 9th-11th grade ACT student assessment program and a professional development program for their faculty. Dr. Allen has ever since remained a colleague and a friend; he currently provides coaching to school leaders seeking to develop the impact of their schools on student achievement and college readiness:

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With closures extended in Illinois and New York, it is quite possible that students will not return to brick and mortar schools this year. This means that much of the responsibility for maintaining academic progress this school year will fall on parents and families. Undoubtedly, many of you have established tight routines while other families are still searching for a rhythm. Regardless of your circumstances, please consider the following:

  1. Be grateful. Despite the stress and uncertainty, we all have something to be thankful for (our health, our support networks, provisions, etc.). Expressing gratitude at this moment can help ward off negativity and give us the strength to charge forward as we journey through uncharted territory.
  2. Establish a routine that works for you. Social media is abuzz with COVID-19 daily schedules. While these can be great resources for families, they may not work for you and your family. You may need to start your day later, shorten learning times, or incorporate more frequent breaks. What works for some families may not work for others, and that is OK.
  3. Set realistic expectations. This is not the time to be laser-like focused on outcomes. Do the best you can to follow the remote learning plans offered by your district, but give yourself permission to struggle and even fail. We are all adjusting to this new normal. Even if you are a trained educator, teaching your own children is a daunting task (this is why teachers send their children to school). Do not put undue pressure on yourself.

Dr. Lionel Allen, Jr.
Founder, ed Leaders Matter
P: 312-860-9324
E: Lionel@edLeadersMatter.com
T: @eLM_Coach
www.edLeadersMatter.com

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Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Changes in High School Rites of Passage

Dear Academic Approach Families:

For over 20 years, the college admissions cycle for juniors and seniors has been very predictable. You could set your watch by it, but now those predictable rites of passage have changed, and so have the experiences of our students.

Not Your Typical Senior or Junior Year
With the dizzying array of changes to college testing and admissions in the last month, juniors and seniors are finding that their experiences this spring are defying their expectations and they may be struggling to process the impact of those changes on their own college admissions planning.

Senior Year College Decisions
Seniors are facing a very different decision-making process from what they may have anticipated. College admissions decisions were released in the last few months, and students are now facing deadlines to commit to schools (and submit deposits) without the benefit of admitted student visit days and with increasing uncertainty about completion of their senior year. NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) is providing a great resource to students that tracks the availability of tours, adjusted deposits, and changed enrollment deadlines by school. Many colleges are exploring creative options like virtual tours and video chats with students or admissions officers to get a sense of a school’s fit.

Opportunities for Juniors
While the cancellation of April ACT and May SAT test dates may have thrown a wrench in many students’ plans for college applications, the extra time can actually provide an unexpected benefit: more dedicated time to consider their own readiness for college, assess their skills, and better prepare for college entrance exams as well as college-level work.

What’s Most Important
We’re continue to focus on student learning in this time and innovating around key questions:

How do we ensure students maintain their progress during this school year?
How do we keep students on track with challenging material and instruction so they are successful when they return to school and move on to college?
We’ll continue to share our insights and the insights of our colleagues on these topics in forthcoming letters.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

School Districts Shift to Remote Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

Spring break is at an end in my household, as my children shift back to remote learning. We’re doing our best to advance and adapt, as are the school districts we work with.

Shifting to Remote Learning
With weeks now of school closures and no clear end in sight, schools are looking at longer-term plans. There’s been wide variation in what districts and schools are providing to students and families, with a large proportion providing access to resources but no direct instruction.

Next Steps for Districts
As districts move into this remote learning, each is taking into consideration the needs of its students and their access to technology. This week, for example, Chicago Public Schools rolled out its Remote Learning Plan, which will begin with instruction following Spring Break on April 13. The district is working to provide devices to more high-need students, adjusting its policies to allow schools to incorporate best-practice tools like Zoom, and delivering packets of enrichment work for families to engage in with their students.

Similar moves were taken last week by the New York Department of Education, distributing devices to students that did not have them and allowing educators to take an approach that best worked for their students. Though the first day was rocky, students adapted quickly and so far, educators seem to be adapting quickly.

What’s Most Important
We’re staying focused on student learning in this time and innovating around key questions:

  • How do we ensure students maintain their progress during this school year?
  • How do we keep students on track with challenging material and instruction so they are successful when they return to school and move on to college?

We’ll be sharing our insights and the insights of our colleagues on these topics in forthcoming letters.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Gratitude and Resilience

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we head into the weekend—2 weeks into social distancing—the value of resilience is on my mind. Resilience has always been a critical non-cognitive factor in the success of our students: those who can persevere through challenging content and the most rigorous problem solving continue to grow academically—and emotionally.

The Power of Gratitude

Over the past several years, we’ve partnered with the University of Chicago to develop a strategy toolkit for students to reduce anxiety and increase resilience. One of our favorite tools is showing gratitude. While this may sound trite, neuroscience research proves that feeling gratitude directly leads to decreasing stress and increasing positive thinking. Moreover, those with increased positive thinking have increased ability for creative and flexible thought and are more able to learn and cope with anxiety.

The Joy Collector

I’ll be encouraging my family and other families to start a concrete practice of writing down the joys—no matter how small—that we are grateful for each day in a Joy Collector journal. I’m also expressing my gratitude for those joys directly to those who bring joy. These practices are especially important right now in helping us to keep anxiety as low as possible and engage us in the process of building resilience through unexpected challenges.

Further reading

I particularly enjoyed this article that contextualizes the research showing the importance of demonstrating gratitude for our own mental health. I’d love to hear the strategies you are implementing with your own families to support them; please reach out and share those suggestions.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO 

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As an educator, I’ve always been aware of my impact not only on the academic progress of my students but also on their positive mindsets and attitudes as they navigate challenging circumstances and unexpected hurdles.

Social-Emotional Learning

Seeing our students develop successfully on and beyond the test has always been central to our work. We’ve dug deep into the evidenced-based practices of social and emotional learning (SEL) through our research and partnerships, and our instruction incorporates the core elements of SEL: improving students’ self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, decision making, and relationship management. Students with strong social emotional skills often find greater academic success. They’re also more equipped to face and overcome challenges they encounter in all aspects of life.

Supporting Social-Emotional Learning at Home

Teaching SEL helps our students face challenges and builds resilience to thrive in the months ahead. With schools either closed or shifted to e-learning, SEL is all the more important to emphasize at home. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has put together a great resource page for families and educators to help incorporate SEL as they support students during challenging times.

Share Your Recommendations

We’ll continue to share ways to support our students and prepare them for the challenges ahead. Have any recommendations for SEL, games and activities, or student support? Send them my way.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Positive, Personalized Mentoring — at a Distance

Dear Academic Approach Families:

I definitely miss meeting my students in person. I miss greeting them with a handshake or a high five, sitting down across the table and warming up to our session’s topic first with some relevant small talk:

“How did that AP US History paper go?” “How was the dress rehearsal?” “I heard you guys beat [insert rival school]! I already rubbed it in to one of my students from there.”

Social Distancing, Staying Positive, Maintaining Relationships

It’s important to remember that healthy communal aspects of our students’ lives have been disrupted. Creative outlets for self-expression or channeling nervous energy through group activity simply and suddenly ended. Social distancing invariably promotes social isolation. Given what our students are experiencing, it’s important to maintain relationships and continue to cultivate them.

Education isn’t just about academics. It’s also about emotion and connection. My own children have received email from former teachers just checking in, reminding them of great experiences they enjoyed with warm mentors, who still care about their progress and success. This is a time for teachers, coaches, and other mentors to reach out to students – new and old – to encourage and connect.

Mentoring Basics

We’re trying to cling to the basics of mentoring as we Zoom into our students’ lives now. Small talk still matters, because it shows you care and you are familiar. It establishes a continuity of shared experiences when so much right now is discontinuous.

There are still AP US History papers to inquire about. And while the sporting events and rehearsals have ceased for now, there are books to recommend, board games to suggest, and important academic questions to answer that are relevant to the student’s specific needs.

Additional Resources Coming Soon

Stay tuned for additional resources for both educators and students on navigating the e-learning world we now live in. And if you have any recommendations for books, board games, or academic reflections, send them my way.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

State Testing Waivers & Helping Students Prepare

Dear Academic Approach Families:

Some important updates today that will likely push standardized testing windows further out in terms of time and further encourage the delivery of these tests online.

State Testing Waivers

Since the White House announced that the Federal Department of Education will not enforce state mandated testing School Year 2019-2020, State Boards of Education across the country are seeking to waive state accountability criteria. This will likely mean many schools will not provide federal or district funded end-of-year tests, including the scheduled SAT or ACT provided as part of the school day testing program in spring 2020. It seems likely that schools will offer additional school day test options later this spring or in the fall, and students will also have the option to test on national Saturday test dates once they resume. Currently, the next scheduled national test dates are June 13th for the ACT and June 6th for the SAT.

Helping Schools and Students Prepare

Though much is up in the air for our current juniors in terms of the college admissions timeline, there is plenty of time ahead to ensure they are prepared both for college admissions and college-level coursework. With many students lacking a federally, state, or district-funded college admissions test this school year, they are likely looking for alternative testing dates prior to fall admissions. Students can test well into fall of their senior year and still use that score for consideration in college applications. For regular decision admission, most colleges will accept scores from as late as the December test.

The Future is Online

With ACT’s already planned expansion of online testing at school-based test sites in September 2020 and College Board’s move to offer secure AP tests in-home in spring 2020, it’s also possible the testing agencies may offer more flexible options to students throughout this summer and fall. We’ll keep you informed of changes as they are announced.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

The Question of Online Testing and E-Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

The theme of this week’s letters will be Online Testing & E-Learning. Two topics today: 1) New federal support for e-learning; and 2) our research and opinion on online testing.

Federal Support for E-Learning

U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education Betsy DeVos issued a statement that schools should be striving to offer distance learning options to students, including those with disabilities or diverse learning needs. While there certainly are questions about which tools to use and how to provide access equitably given the limitations, for example, that Chicago Public School students have on technology usage, we believe that urging schools—as our Federal DOE has—to allow and support remote learning is smart. Some schools are moving quickly, providing detailed schedules and activities for students each week, while others are still determining how to best support their students. Right now, we believe that focusing on how to reach students (even with fewer resources) is the right direction rather than canceling or delaying learning any further.

Research & Opinion on Online Testing

With the limitations put in place by necessary social distancing and stay-at-home measures, online tests may provide the best possible option in the next few months. Our Director of Education Amanda Aisen offers valuable research and opinion on online testing here.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Modified AP Exams and Extended School Closures

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we close the week, we have updates from the College Board re: AP exams and from school districts on extended school closures

Modified AP Exams

This morning, the College Board announced that AP exams this year will be administered as 45-minute online exams for students to take at home. The content tested has been revised to exclude content that could not be taught before schools closed, and the question types will only include free-response questions. A detailed breakdown of what content will be included on each test can be found here on the College Board’s website.

Beginning next week, the College Board will offer free materials for self-study. Our instructors are available to tailor these materials and others to a student’s specific academic needs.

Extended School Closures for Illinois

For our Illinois families, please note that Chicago public schools’ closure was extended to April 20th, and the state-wide school closures have been extended to April 8th. In addition, the spring NWEA-MAP test for high school admissions has been cancelled.

Going Forward

For your convenience, we have compiled our daily updates on this website for you to review and share with others. We will continue to update you as we learn more. 

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Rigor & Relevance: Critical Reading during COVID-19

Dear Academic Approach Families:

In today’s message, I highlight the importance of critical reading, rigor, and relevance while our students learn at home.

Rigor
With the first week of e-learning drawing near an end, we can see that it’s challenging to replicate the rigor of consistent classroom learning at home. As educators and parents, we are being asked to find more opportunities for learning and engagement to keep students consistently growing.

Relevance
I remember 20 years ago as a graduate student teaching in the core curriculum at Columbia in NYC trying to find ways to engage my freshmen writers. 19 persuasive essays, 1 semester—I had to make it relevant to get their buy-in. I focused on debates, controversies, often with direct relevance to our campus. If the text spoke to my students, I received strong engagement and persuasive argument from them in response.

Critical Reading during COVID-19
NYTimes Learning Article of the Day provides a great resource for nonfiction texts to read and study with students. If you select today’s lesson, “We Live in Zoom Now,” it provides a relevant article and very practical prompts for discussion and writing: How do you celebrate with friends in a world of social distancing? What are ways to teach our grandparents to use technology to engage? What is the most challenging thing about living online?

Making text-to-self connections has always been the most immediate way to get student buy-in and engagement. Science, technology, politics—no longer can be dismissed with that common student refrain: “What does that have to do with my life?”

That means this time is a teachable moment: a time to encourage students read rigorous and challenging nonfiction texts, and reflect on them seriously. The critical reading and thinking skills they’ll build will keep students on-track for their return to school and on the path to college readiness.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Preparing for AP Exams

Dear Academic Approach Families:

For those students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) Courses, it appears College Board is nearing a solution for AP Testing.

College Board, which manages AP Exams, will be posting its next update on Friday, March 20th with a plan for what is next in terms of the testing format for students and the materials for teachers who are teaching AP curriculum through e-learning. The most interesting option College Board references is in-home testing.

If your student would like supplemental instruction to partner with your school’s e-learning, do not hesitate to reach out to us at 773-348-8914. Our directors can walk you through the process and match you with one of our AP instructors.

Visit the College Board’s AP webpage for more updates. We will continue to keep you updated as more information is released.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Our Approach to E-Learning: New Delivery, Same High Quality

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we move our in-person sessions online, I want to share some highlights and describe the steps we’re taking to continue to deliver our high-quality, personalized instruction.

Our Tech Approach
We’re using Zoom video conferencing to support our sessions. This is free to our students and easy to access. Zoom is compatible with a wide range of devices with the best engagement being through tablet, laptop, or desktop. Should a student wish to use an alternative setup, such as FaceTime or Skype, we will work to accommodate that request.

Our Tutoring Approach
I’ve delivered 2 effective days now of Zoom sessions with students. While I’ve provided distance learning for years over FaceTime or Skype, the Zoom experience supports a higher quality of instruction in a few ways.

  1. Digitized curriculum: We’ve digitized all of our tests and course books, so we can interact with them through Zoom’s screen sharing.
  2. White board: Zoom’s white board is excellent at allowing the instructor to provide clear visualizations of step-by-step problem solving. The close attention we pay to the student’s process and procedure can be maintained effectively through Zoom.

While adapting to new e-learning protocols can take time, these protocols also present new opportunities to grow. At Academic Approach, we’re embracing this opportunity to innovate while holding tightly to our core academic values and principles of instruction.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Planning for ACT & SAT Test Date Changes

Dear Academic Approach Families:

During this time of more questions than answers, we hope to help you determine next steps and stay on track with ACT and SAT planning and preparation. In this email, we will provide (1) updates from the ACT and SAT, and (2) some thoughts to keep in mind as you plan ahead.

First, we continue to inform you when ACT and SAT send us updates as these organizations carefully consider the health and wellness of their test takers:

  1. The SAT canceled most of its testing sites for the March 14th exam and College Board has now canceled the March 14th make-up exam that was scheduled for the 28th. The May 2nd SAT & SAT Subject Tests have also been canceled.
  2. The ACT has now canceled the April 4th exam. They are not currently planning to offer a make-up date but instead encourage students to take the June 13th exam.
  3. College Board has not given updates on how school closings will affect the AP Exam schedule. Once again, as we learn more, we will update everyone.
  4. For those students taking the mandatory Illinois Public School SAT or PSAT-10 on April 14th, those plans are up in the air. As the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) determines next steps, we will forward information as soon as possible.

Second, some thoughts as you plan ahead:

  1. For families who were planning to take the ACT or SAT on dates that were canceled, look for communication from ACT or College Board to determine if they will be offering you credit toward a future exam.
  2. The registration deadline for the June 13th ACT is May 8th.
  3. The registration deadline for the June 6th SAT is May 8th.

Academic Approach’s focus during this unusual time is to help students make consistent progress toward their ACT and SAT growth goals. Continuity is critical in student learning, and our students learn best through repeated, cumulative exposure to and practice of key college readiness skills. We hope to encourage your ability to maintain continuity through our complimentary online practice tests as well as our 25% reduction in fees for online tutoring.

Look for regular, informative email in the days to come. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out at any time.

Best,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

An Offer for our Academic Approach Families

Dear Academic Approach Families:

At Academic Approach, we consider ourselves partners with our students’ families, helping them navigate important challenges and reach important milestones successfully.

As school closures officially begin across the state, we understand that we need to all keep our social distance, as appropriate; at the same time, however, we do not want to lose the momentum of academic progress that our students need to maintain during Spring.

To help you during these uncertain times, as of Monday, March 16th and until school resumes, we are moving our instruction online and offering a 25% discount on tutoring services as well as complimentary practice tests online. We hope that this gesture provides you the opportunity to continue your student’s academic progress.

Best,

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder and CEO

Maintaining Academic Progress During School Closures

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As I write this email after a day of watching my middle schooler (who,
thankfully, is happy and healthy) playing video games on the sofa during her
first day of school closure, I am mindful of our need to keep our students on
track academically during this very unique time. Over the coming days, we’ll
see more and more of our students transitioning from classroom learning to
e-learning or remote learning.

We are here for you to offer any academic guidance, given what will surely be a cascade of rescheduled events. We are also here to offer support, so
students do not lose momentum in their academic progress. If you have
questions or concerns, feel free to reach out. We are here to help in any way
possible.

Below are additional links to important information from the ACT and College Board regarding the status of future test dates.

Look for future letters with updates as information becomes available. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.

Best,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder and CEO

Table of Contents

Every Student is Different

We know our students; each one is unique, and each one requires a different approach, especially during these unprecedented times. That is why our ACT, SAT, and Middle School test prep is customized to each student and school partner.

We improve your students’ standardized testing by tailoring our research-based, expert instruction and curriculum to your needs, and we can get started with you right away.

In response to the growing concerns about the coronavirus (COVID-19), we are shifting our services to online tutoring and online practice testing.

Reach out to us at 773-348-8914 with any questions.