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How robots can help kids learn English

November 18, 2021 - This week, we look at how one district uses robotics to help speed up and deepen learning for long-term English learners.
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College admissions have always seemed opaque and confusing to students and families. But the coronavirus pandemic only further complicated the issue, especially after many California colleges and universities stopped accepting the SAT or ACT for admission last year as social distancing prevented students from sitting for standardized tests.

Now, students may wonder what has become the most important aspect of the application process: essays, extracurricular activities, grades or their backgrounds?

“It’s not about what is more important,” among these criteria, said Emily Engelschall, interim associate vice chancellor of enrollment services at the University of California Riverside. Engelschall was one of the panelists invited to help clear up the fog on the admissions process during a roundtable hosted by EdSource on Wednesday. “It’s really about what the student is telling us” on their applications about their lives.

Grades are looked at “a little bit more closely” now that standardized tests aren’t part of the evaluation. But across the nine undergraduate UC campuses, admissions officers use 12 other factors like special talents, location and the number of and performance in honors or dual enrollment courses to help determine admission, Engelschall said.

In the 23-campus California State University system, each institution has its own admissions model. But at Cal Poly Pomona, “it’s really about looking at the full student,” said Brandon Tuck, director of admissions for the campus, one of the panelists.

“We have a lot of history on the student and how they’ve progressed academically through their high school career,” he said, referring to the information students provide on their applications. Grades are still very important, but each institution should be examining students that fit the profile of their institution. For example, the Pomona campus is a polytechnic university, which means performance in science, technology, engineering and math classes will carry more weight with admissions officers there, Tuck said.

After the elimination of standardized tests, more students appear to be applying to colleges than before, as many feel they have a more equitable chance at admission. But there’s still too much secrecy around the process, students say.

Jessica Ramos, a UC Berkeley freshman studying psychology, said she applied to about 30 colleges and universities last year.

“As students, we see it as luck,” said Ramos, who was also a panelist. “Admissions is like this secret, like the new show that just came out, ‘Squid Games.’ … We kind of get put into this system where whoever gets chosen, gets chosen. We don’t really know anything about what’s behind the scenes. So there never has been trust with admissions. It’s just this type of luck game.”

When navigating admissions today, one big question students are contemplating is how to use “pass” or “no pass” options on their transcripts. Thanks to Assembly Bill 104 California high school students can change their letter grades for courses taken in 2020-21 to a “pass” or “no pass” without lowering their GPA. The change doesn’t affect their financial aid or admission to CSU or UC.

“There is a large concern about the number of ‘pass’ and ‘no pass’ grades that are showing on an application,” Engelschall said. “That’s another data point that we’re not seeing on a student.”

Josh Godinez, a counselor at Centennial High School in Corona and president of the California Association of School Counselors, advises students to apply to eight to 12 colleges with a mixture of CSU, UC and private institutions.

“So that [then] we just see what happens,” he said, adding that he also encourages students to apply to a community college and get their financial aid applications in. “Because you never know … and at least that gives them a Plan B to consider.”

Admissions officers are also well aware of the changes or accommodations students have had to make because of the pandemic. So it’s good for students to let admissions offices know if they weren’t able to participate in an activity or take a dual enrollment class because those opportunities were cut off for them, Godinez said.

“Make sure if you, or your child, was one of those students that had some sort of obstacle to take something that would have otherwise been taken in a normal year, that that information is shared as part of that (Covid-19 pandemic) experience,” he said.

For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.

Lifting the veil on college admissions amid the pandemic

State and federal investments in transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds — if done right — has the potential to transform education for all of California’s young learners, panelists said Thursday at EdSource’s roundtable on the topic.

“My hope is that this federal money will be a booster for us in California that will allow us to think big time, think long term,” said panelist Vickie Ramos Harris, director of educational equity for Advancement Project California. “It can help us stay on track for what we need to do for our babies and our early childhood workforce.”

Universal Transitional Kindergarten: What Parents Need to Know,” a virtual roundtable webinar hosted by EdSource, covered topics such as early childhood brain development, equity and social justice, the teacher shortage, ideal teacher-student ratios and the pandemic’s impact on transitional kindergarten classrooms.

Panelists included policymakers, a TK teacher, advocates and academic researchers.

Transitional kindergarten has been a part of California schools for years. It was originally designed for 4-year-olds whose birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 as a steppingstone between preschool and kindergarten. But amid calls for expanded preschool and other programs to benefit young children, California set aside $2.7 billion in its 2021-22 budget to expand the program to all 4-year-olds, not just those with fall birthdays.

The Biden administration has also prioritized early childhood programs and included money in the current spending bill to fund transitional kindergarten, preschool and other programs. The bill is awaiting a vote in Congress.

California’s plan, known as universal TK, will be phased in beginning in 2022 and is expected to include all of the state’s 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year.

Universal TK is considered important because it could help narrow the academic achievement gap between children whose families can afford high-quality preschool and those whose can’t, panelists said. Children who fall behind academically in the early years often have difficulty catching up and sometimes face long-term challenges as a result.

“There’s a real opportunity here,” said Samantha Tran, managing director for education policy at Children Now. “Not only does California have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country, but those gaps begin before children even walk through the door of kindergarten. That’s why this is so important.”

Deborah Stipek, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, noted that transitional kindergarten can benefit children’s brain development, but the program must be high-quality and led by trained teachers.

Finding enough trained teachers as well as teaching assistants for the TK expansion will be a challenge, she said. California is already experiencing a dire teacher shortage.

“The biggest concern, right now, is staffing,” she said. “We need to think more broadly about the issue of how we recruit and train the people who will take care of our youngest children.”

California will need an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 new teachers and 16,000 new teaching assistants as transitional kindergarten expands, Tran said.

Teaching assistants and a low teacher-to-student ratio will be key to making TK a success, said Paula Merrigan, a TK teacher in Castro Valley Unified. She said she occasionally has 26 children in a classroom, and even a part-time assistant makes a world of difference. It allows her to focus on children’s individual needs, such as motor skills, counting, learning to write their names or to help them navigate social and emotional difficulties, without the pressure of kindergarten standards.

Ultimately, that’s what TK should be about, Merrigan said.

“TK is geared more toward preschool. It’s a bridge between the two. In TK, students learn by playing, by doing, by exploration,” she said. “We call it the gift of time.”

Panelists were hopeful about the state and federal commitment to young children but acknowledged the hurdles ahead. Staffing shortages, in particular, will be a significant barrier to a smooth rollout of transitional kindergarten in all California schools.

“I am thrilled the Biden administration is prioritizing this,” Tran said. “But that doesn’t get California off the hook. We have a responsibility to map a path forward.”

For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.

Hope, caution among experts as California rolls out transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds

Teachers are returning to the classroom with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety as they ease students back into classrooms after 17 months of distance learning, according to a panel of educators during an EdSource Roundtable Discussion, the second in a new series.

They say they have their work cut out for them this year as they address the social anxiety that many students are now feeling, the technology burnout students face and as they balance academic curriculum with social-emotional learning.

Jose Rivas, who teaches physics and engineering to grades 10–12 at Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy in southwestern Los Angeles County, said his students were eager to return to the classroom, where they could “get their hands dirty” building things. But, he said, many felt anxious about being back in the classroom. One of his students became physically ill because she felt overwhelmed being in a room with so many people. Rivas said all he could do was give the student some space until she felt better.

Gwendolyn Delgado, a bilingual 6-12 teacher at La Mesa Junior High School, said social anxiety was clearly apparent among students in her ethnic studies class, where she frequently has students turn to their partners to have conversations. Despite being excited to come back to school, the students struggle to spark conversations while wearing masks and following the school’s other safety protocols. They ask a lot of questions about what they are and aren’t allowed to do.

“The kids are very hesitant,” Delgado said. “Part of it is because of all the guidelines and restrictions that we have in the classroom. But, also, they’ve been isolated and been on their own and now to have these social interactions with all these restrictions, they don’t know what to do.”

Delgado said one of the things she does to bring down students’ anxiety is to sanitize the classroom and materials, such as art supplies. It’s not required at her school, she said, but it makes students feel more secure.

Rivas and Delgado are part of EdSource’s Teacher Advisory Committee.

In order to make students comfortable participating in the class, Rivas said building relationships and community is key. Panelists spoke to the importance of social-emotional learning: education based on helping students develop emotional skills like self-awareness and navigating healthy relationships vital to success in school and life. Some examples include meditation and mindfulness exercises and communication and collaboration skills.

“For me, academic curriculum is on the backburner,” Rivas said. “These kids just want to talk, they want someone to say, ‘Hey I noticed that you like anime, let’s talk about it.’ It’s not pushing the curriculum on them, they’re going to get through the stuff, and we’re going to learn, but that interpersonal relationship building with the teacher and the other students is critical.”

When students get to the point of feeling comfortable with their teacher and classmates, they’re more willing to share how they are feeling that day, or troubles they may have in their lives, he said.

“That’s why we’re here, right? It’s not just to shove curriculum into their minds, but to understand that they are people, and they need to be heard and they need to be safe,” he said.

Despite teachers’ best efforts, there will still likely be students who just won’t want to participate, Delgado said.

“You can’t push it on them right now, you can’t force them,” Delgado said. “You’re just going to have to respect that they need that individual space, and maybe talk to them after class and say ‘Hey is everything OK? I just wanted to check in with you, maybe we can try again tomorrow, and if you need support let me know.’”

In order to gauge where students are at academically going into the new school year, Rivas said he takes an “individualized approach” to each of his students. He has an individualized education plan for all of his more than 130 students. Individualized education plans, or IEPs, are typically developed for students with special needs. They outline what that student needs to learn in a specified period of time and what special services need to be provided based on the student’s ability.

Rivas said he incorporates social emotional learning into his student’s IEPs.

Something the roundtable panelists have in common is that their students are feeling burnt out on technology. Some said students complain when they have to use the computer. They would rather do art, use pencil and paper, and do more hands-on activities, which they lacked during distance learning.

“I felt the burnout amongst our students, and myself as well,” Delgado said. “I needed to unplug just for my own wellbeing as well as being an educator. I find that my students are enjoying (unplugging). It’s pushing them to be more creative on their own and come up with thoughts on their own instead of just Googling a thought.”

Delgado said she will continue to integrate technology in her classes — especially for students who are shy in order to get them to participate more.

Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High in Sacramento, said he plans to give students the option of doing projects or activities using either pen and paper or something like Google Slides. He said it’s important to keep in mind that students and classes may go into quarantine, so having an online option for schoolwork may be necessary.

For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.

Teachers face the challenges of returning to the classroom

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