Last year was tough on parents with school-aged children. It was tough on the students, too.
In Illinois, the school shutdown in March 2020 presented unprecedented challenges, with both parents and students having to adapt to remote learning and find ways to keep up with coursework.
Enter Academic Approach, a Chicagobased test preparation and academic tutoring company that prepares students for the next step in their academic progress. The company is celebrating its 20th year in 2021.
“I moved to Chicago from New York in 2001 with two goals: first, to provide academically enriching test preparation that raised students’ tests scores, academic skills, and confidence,” says Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Academic Approach’s Founder and CEO. “Second, to work with schools to provide creative programming and flexible access for excellent instruction to students across a wide spectrum.”
While the company has been helping families and schools steer through the academic enrichment, test preparation, and college entrance process for 20 years, the last year has been particularly challenging.
“We’ve been supporting families and schools through this journey since day one. Well, this past year the journey intensified into Homer’s Odyssey, with families navigating the Scylla of an uncertain admissions process and the Charybdis of remote and hybrid school learning,” says Pietrafetta, who readily enjoys a literary allusion now and again. “Helping families navigate these new challenges offered new opportunities for us as a team and a business.”
The first issue related, in part, to the difficulties faced by students in accessing the SAT and ACT, and the subsequent suspension by most colleges of factoring in those test scores for acceptance. Many students simply couldn’t access a testing site.
The second related to parents (and students) who were concerned that they were falling behind as they were forced to switch to remote learning. It was a forced experiment, and there were many unknowns about how effective virtual learning could be and whether or not students would maintain academic progress or suffer increased learning loss.
“We provided continual guidance in helping families navigate test preparation as well as academic enrichment; educators, parents, and students didn’t want to lose academic progress,” Pietrafetta says. “Students and families were overwhelmed and confused, and everything was changing every day.”
There was so much demand for information from parents and students that Pietrafetta started an e-mail newsletter, which continues to reach thousands of families. Academic Approach’s relationships with school counselors and other partners helped it keep apprised of key intelligence and trends.
“It was remarkable. People were so hungry for information. Everyone was locked down; they were at home, and they were curious,” Pietrafetta says. “That side of our business over the past year has greatly developed. We’ve increased our ability to do research, find information, and answer questions in consultation with families during a time when they really needed it.”
Another important factor in helping Pietrafetta and Academic Approach create new services last year was Pietrafetta’s ability to observe his own school-aged children at home and their experiences with remote learning.
“At home, I have a 17-year-old,12-yearold, and 2-year-old, so I was empathetic to what remote learning looked like from a parent’s perspective and from an educator’s perspective,” he says. “I knew I had to start to fill in gaps in learning and instruction for my own children’s education because they were not as engaged or as challenged as they needed to be, and, despite best efforts and intentions, they simply needed more rigor, guidance, and support.”
This need to fill in the gaps in learning led to increased calls from families that were concerned about their children maintaining academic progress, leading to growth in the company’s academic tutoring services.
Losing a year or more of standardized testing, which can be used to track a student’s academic progress comparatively at a national level, will also pose challenges down the line. It will take a few years of data analysis to discern the impact.
“We don’t know what we don’t know, and we won’t until we get a look at a full year’s data and trends,” Pietrafetta says. “Standardized tests tell us if we are on track compared to grade-level expectations. We won’t know how much the learning loss is until we get some of the reporting from future testing. It’s a bit of a conundrum, because while the tests are under increased scrutiny—and deservedly so in many ways—we need standardized measures more than ever to assess the reality of learning loss.”
For now, Pietrafetta says the events of the past year have brought Academic Approach’s mission into sharp focus, and in its 20th year the company will continue to pivot to meet the needs of parents and students during unpredictable times.
“Within the first week of the shutdown, we had immediate clarity about what our mission needed to be—helping students maintain academic progress,” says Pietrafetta. “Informational leadership, expert consulting, and academic, skill building, coaching, and mentoring—this was our focus and will remain our focus for the foreseeable future.”
Academic Approach is located in Lincoln Park in Chicago, Winnetka, and Highland Park, 773- 348-8914, academicapproach.com.