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Pawnee ISD gets creative with extended school year, provides outdoor learning, professional development

Getting students excited for an extra 30 days of school is a difficult task, but perhaps less so at Pawnee ISD where it could mean a fishing trip, a virtual tour of NASA, or roasting a pig at a luau.  

An Additional Days School Year (ADSY) grant from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has provided the 300-student, single-school district in rural South Texas with the resources to extend time both for student learning and teacher planning time. Staff benefit from much-needed time for professional learning and collaboration, while students participate in outdoor activities that serve as both “brain breaks” and opportunities for applied, real-world learning.  

“While brain breaks are great, that's not to say we're stopping learning; it's just a different way to learn incorporated throughout the whole day,” said Josh West, ADSY Grant Coordinator.

If students are learning geometry, they may go outside and separate into groups to form shapes. Last summer, Pawnee educators took students on a boat ride on the Gulf Coast, where they were able to catch fish and identify the different species. Activities are often tied to a monthly theme such as “Outdoor Living” or “Exploring the Galaxy.” The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Once we mentioned fishing—everybody from the kindergartners to the eighth graders—their eyes lit up
because it's something that they love to do. And you know, not many ISDs are able to do that”

- Josh West, ADSY Grant Coordinator

The district taps into the experiences of both students and staff to enrich the learning experience. On fishing trips, younger students were paired up with older students who did the actual casting of the lure, which encouraged the younger students to learn from their older peers.  

“Some students were more experienced than others and you were able to see them assisting one another in casting, techniques with lures, and untangling lines. It was a great way to see students become teachers,” said Michael Soto, Athletic Director. 

Staff members are able to use their own (sometimes hidden) talents in leading learning activities. Soto led fishing, the cafeteria staff taught students how to barbecue, the maintenance staff showed students how to do handywork, and one teacher led yoga instruction. As West puts it, “It’s all hands on-deck.” 

Activities occasionally take students to new towns and cities, fostering new life experiences that help them make personal connections to the instruction.

“When students are doing a writing activity or reading a passage, they can now actually truly picture that experience versus trying to come up with it from a TV show. They've experienced it and that ties into their emotions and how they feel about things,” said Kendra Wuest, Director of Special Programs and Innovation.

One of the purposes of ADSY is to help stop the summer slide: learning loss that occurs when students aren’t in school over the summer. According to the TEA, the “cumulative impact of summer learning loss has been shown to create a gap of up to three grade levels for low-income students by the fifth grade.” In Pawnee, where over 83% of students are economically disadvantaged, stopping the summer slide is a priority. The extended calendar provides the additional benefit of families spending fewer resources on childcare and meals, and addresses the relative lack of daycare options within 60 miles of the school.  

While the extended calendar has proved beneficial to both students and families, it also opens up valuable planning time for teachers.

During the extra days, teachers engage in professional development and collaboration, with support through a partnership with engage2learn. In each session, teachers focus on a specific practice such as high-quality small group or differentiated instruction. The professional development is split into half days, with language arts teachers training in the morning, and math and science teachers training in the afternoon.

District leaders have added instructional coaching to help educators apply what they plan for during ADSY days. Coaches observe teacher lessons and provide feedback for teachers to incorporate. Coaches also work with teachers to review student progress data to find out what is and isn’t working in the class and share lessons learned with their colleagues.

Pawnee is focused on continuously improving its program to drive the most impact for both students and teachers. The district sent out a mid-year survey to students and staff before planning next year’s calendar to gauge how they were experiencing this new initiative. Results were positive overall and allowed district leaders to make minor tweaks, like scheduling longer weekends when people were susceptible to burnout.

Next year, students should expect a lot more unique learning experiences.  

“It's endless what our superintendent can come up with at times,” said West.



See how you can use ESSER funds to build educator capacity in your district with our updated Professional Learning & Collaboration Strategy Guide:

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