Wildcat Saturdays: Orange Park Junior High stays ahead of the learning curve with voluntary weekend sessions

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 2/24/21

ORANGE PARK – The — The Wildcats at Orange Park Junior High are working to get ahead of the learning loss stemming from COVID-19.It’s no surprise that the first few months of …

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Wildcat Saturdays: Orange Park Junior High stays ahead of the learning curve with voluntary weekend sessions


ORANGE PARK – The — The Wildcats at Orange Park Junior High are working to get ahead of the learning loss stemming from COVID-19.
It’s no surprise that the first few months of COVID-19 and distance learning were a struggle for everyone involved. Teachers and students had to learn new technologies to make virtual learning possible and both had to adapt to the new circumstances of education. All of education is aware that this will result in a widespread learning loss, but the Wildcats at Orange Park are working overtime to get ahead of it, and they’re doing it on their volition.
“So with COVID-19, there’s some learning lost and some have been home, some have returned to school, and there’s a lot of plans in our district and across all of education about how to create summer programs to recoup the learning lost,” Principal Justin Faulkner said. “For OPJH, we don’t want to wait until summer time and that’s why we’ve created Wildcat Saturdays.”
Faulkner said there are still state tests to come and that’s why his school isn’t content with waiting until the summer to get started on regaining the learning lost. He and his team came up with Wildcat Saturdays as a way to get students the extra education time they need in areas like reading, writing, math and test preparation.
Many students were excited about this idea on its own, but the school went a step further and talked to local businesses like Sonic and McDonalds to get breakfast provided for the students. Other businesses have donated gift cards and more and all of this works to entice the students who were maybe on the fence about voluntary Saturday school.
This is so much more than a study session though – it’s a program designed specifically to attack those areas of learning most affected by COVID-19 and it was built in such a way that every student dips in and out of the many different facets of learning.
“There’s nine different sessions that the kids rotated through,” Faulkner said. “They’re divided up into small groups of about nine and that allows for much more targeted interaction. The content we teach is curated and based on research and best practices.”
He said the team behind the program came up with a six-Saturday plan that will help students who attend just one session and those who attend all six. Faulkner said the school is even looking internally at data to see what the numbers look like for a student that attends all of them versus a student that attends just two and so on. That’s because the school has bigger plans than just this six-Saturday course.
“We have big plans for this,” Faulkner said. “Our goal right now is to attack that learning lost from COVID-19, but we want this to be just another aspect of OPJH. We see a future where there’s a Spring session and a Fall session every year.”
Justin Davis was a student at the first session on Feb. 20, and he said he learned different ways to write things on the Florida State Assessment tests that “will help me understand other subjects and learn information.” Killian Drury was surprised at how fast the time went last Saturday. They learned during a test preparation session that it’s important to ready everything on a test and carefully follow all instructions. Faulkner said he was worried students and teachers wouldn’t want to do this. He was wrong. More than 100 students signed up for the first session and 85 students attended. He sent out messaging to teachers asking if they’d be interested, and 20 minutes later, he had a full lineup of teachers ready to go. What’s better is that using Title 1 dollars, he’s able to ensure each teacher is paid for their sessions.
The sessions don’t directly address every course of study – science and civics aren’t included – but Faulkner said studies show reading directly affects every other course of study and it helps with test preparation and comprehension.
Jayla Bryant said they loved the activities during the first Wildcat Saturday because they learned new vocabulary that will help them in school and on state tests.
“It was a great success,” Faulkner said. “The kids responded very well to it and we have six Saturdays identified for this. Our goals are: one, to provide opportunities for students to get extra facetime and hands-on learning; and two, to remediate the learning lost. We want to eliminate the need for our students to have to go to summer school and we want to get them back on track so that we can put the COVID-19-related learning loss behind us.”

Wildcat Saturdays weren’t mandated by the district or the state. It’s not an idea considered elsewhere, but Faulkner and his team came up with it as a method of proactivity.
“We even faced some skepticism that people would want this and we proved that wrong,” Faulkner said. “Our kids are our community and I know that pockets of my community here were hit harder than others in terms of how it impacted learning loss. If we don’t act on it, nobody else is going to and the best we can do is make up for the learning lost now instead of later and in any way we can.
“The teachers and the community believe in our kids. They are amazing and they all show up for them. Even when teaching is the hardest it’s ever been, and even when learning is harder than it’s ever been, our Wildcats show up and it’s remarkable to see.”


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