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With millions in federal dollars, Oregon schools plan to address unfinished learning

(Left to right) Donovan Cha, Mar Brassea, and Vida Hampson work together to solve a math problem in Eric Marsh’s third-grade class at Prescott Elementary in Portland, Feb. 8, 2022. Since March 11, Oregon school districts have been free to adopt their own masking policies.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
(Left to right) Donovan Cha, Mar Brassea, and Vida Hampson work together to solve a math problem in Eric Marsh’s third-grade class at Prescott Elementary in Portland, Feb. 8, 2022. Since March 11, Oregon school districts have been free to adopt their own masking policies. .

Most of the $1.1 billion Oregon received in federal pandemic funds went to school districts. What are they doing with the money?

It’s been one year since President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, a federal funding package that included $1.1 billion for Oregon schools.

It wasn’t the first funding opportunity for schools in the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic first started, but it’s been the largest funding source so far and is the first with spending requirements squarely aimed at helping students recover the ground they lost academically during the pandemic.

“The level of funding…has been pretty unprecedented in terms of an opportunity, and yet, the situation that we’re in, with the COVID crisis and really with just some deep inequalities in our schools is also unprecedented,” said statewide nonprofit Foundations for a Better Oregon executive director Whitney Grubbs.

Districts spent funds from earlier rounds of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, on masks, or laptops and hotspots for distance learning. Those funding streams are known by policymakers as ESSER I and II. With the American Rescue Plan or ESSER III funds, education leaders face a deadline of September 2024 to spend the available federal money, while directing at least 20% of it on addressing learning loss “through the implementation of evidence-based interventions.”

Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill said the state sees a strong focus on learning loss, or unfinished learning, as state and local officials call it.

“There was a requirement to spend 20% of their funds on those kinds of activities,” Gill said. “In our accounting of that, it’s looking like it’s over 30%.”

See how much money your school district received from ARP/ESSER III here.

Now that districts have these federal dollars, the way they address learning loss will take shape over the next several years. Initial district plans submitted to the state last fall offer some idea of where the money will go, though they are subject to change.

Districts have a responsibility to invest these one-time federal funds carefully, and in a way that supports schools beyond 2024.

At the same time, schools are dealing with how to help recover from the last two years. Classrooms are full of students struggling academically and emotionally, staff are worn out and educational materials are outdated.

As the head of an organization working to improve the education system and better serve all students, Grubbs will be watching school leaders spend.

“It’s an opportunity, but it’s a rebuilding opportunity, not necessarily a ‘go back to the way things were before’ situation.”

Plan to extend Medford’s school year met with pushback

Last summer, Medford used state grant money — not federal money — to host a summer program. Administrators say it kept students engaged in learning.

“Our superintendent called it a ‘worksheet-free zone,” said Medford assistant superintendent of operations Brad Earl.

Earl said district officials have been working on finding more learning time for students.

“Our students really fell behind to the pandemic and we have students that have been traditionally really good students, suddenly struggling in class,” Earl said.

He said district results from YouthTruth surveys suggested “students are lacking purpose” and not feeling like there’s “rigor” in their work.

Medford’s initial ESSER III plan, submitted to the state last fall, included a plan to extend the length of three school years, by adding seven days this school year, six days next year, and five days in 2023-2024.

“Our students really fell behind to the pandemic and we have students that have been traditionally really good students, suddenly struggling in class."
Brad Earl, Medford School District assistant superintendent of operations

The additional seven days were added to the beginning of this school year to give teachers more prep time and give students a little more learning time. But the response from staff and families was mixed.

“It doesn’t appear to be popular at this time to start the school year too much earlier,” said Medford communications and community engagement director Natalie Hurd.

So next year, there’s only one scheduled extra day, with another summer program before the school year starts.

Earl says the district is working on other ways to “pepper in” learning throughout the year, extending the year in different ways.

“One of the things we talk about in education is that when a student isn’t doing well with reading, what do we do? We take them out of all the fun classes and we make them read more and it almost feels like punishment at that point,” Earl said.

“So how do you get it exciting? Instead of, ‘I’m going to take you out of your fun classes to go read’, how do you make reading so compelling that they wish to do it, and they wish to do it over breaks and holidays and all those kinds of things?” he said.

He says they have not ruled out additional learning days for the 2023-2024 school year.

Medford and Salem-Keizer are among the many districts also focusing on mental health by planning on adding social workers and other staff.

“About a third of the plans, as we’ve done our review, look like they include a focus on mental health and relationship building,” Gill said.

Going forward, Medford will look at data points including 9th-grade on-track rates and 3rd-grade reading proficiency in order to assess the progress of the district’s goals. But Earl says Medford has a long way to go.

“In the area of learning loss, the struggle is real,” Earl said.

In Salem, staffing goals, innovation grants, and supporting the “village”

The pandemic relief funds for schools are meant to do just that — offer relief for students, teachers and school staff and help students recover from two years of pandemic schooling.

“Right now, just about everything is a response to COVID,” said Salem-Keizer director of strategic initiatives Suzanne West.

Within that broad pandemic recovery mandate, West said the flexibility of ESSER III is unique compared to other federal grants, giving the district a chance to support students in different ways.

For one, the district plans to give $1.5 million to community-based organizations over the next three years. CBOs often provide enrichment, tutoring, or family support for the district community.

Elizabeth Miller
Elementary students put together towers using marshmallows and toothpicks during spring break at a Boys & Girls Club location in Salem on March 17, 2022. The Boys & Girls Club is a community based organization set to receive funds from the Salem-Keizer schools to expand offerings.

That includes the Boys and Girls Club of Salem, Marion and Polk counties, which hosts an afterschool program for Salem-Keizer students.

“It really does take a village,” West said. “A school cannot do everything that a student or family may need for that student to be successful.”

The ESSER III funds will help expand and reduce fees for families that participate in afterschool programming. Portland Public Schools has also outlined plans to give some ESSER III funds to community-based organizations.

“We want to support them because they are supporting our students,” West said.

Through ESSER III, Salem-Keizer is also offering “innovation grants” as a way to tailor spending to the individual needs at different schools.

“What we wanted to do for our school leaders is provide them an opportunity working with their school teams to identify something unique to their context that they think would be really helpful for their student, and apply for monies to support whatever that effort is,” West said.

So far, one Salem elementary school applied for funds to bring in a consultant to teach staff trauma-informed practices for working with students. High schools have applied for grants to start Saturday schools to give students more study time.

This kind of focused, school-specific support is something Stand For Children executive director Toya Fick would like to see more of from Oregon districts.

“I think districts have a hard time targeting to particular schools so instead they go in a roundabout way and serve those families,” Fick said. “…I would love for the state and for districts to work together to find a way to really think about how money is spent differently at a school site level.”

Fick said Salem-Keizer has been thoughtful and “robust” in its communication with families.

The district also has plans to increase staff in secondary math classes and have extra mentors in high school to help 9th graders with the transition. The district has lofty goals that include 54 full-time positions in kindergarten, first and second grade.

“We wanted to reduce class sizes for those students so that they had a more personalized learning experience for their first year back in school,” West said.

Despite state and nationwide staffing shortages, West said the district has been able to fill “many” of the positions, but not all — so they’re prepared to evaluate how things are working and decide whether to reallocate funds.

Curriculum adoption a big-ticket item in Reynolds

The most costly line item in Reynolds’ ESSER III plan is English Language Arts curriculum adoption. At an estimated cost of $6 million for the next three years, new curriculum is one of the only ways the district plans to use its ESSER III funds in this first year.

Part of this includes adopting culturally relevant texts as a way to better engage students with what they’re learning. Students of color make up more than two-thirds of the student body in the east Multnomah County school district.

“Reynolds School District is very culturally diverse, so we want to make sure that if we have the opportunity to get new curriculum, that the curriculum is culturally responsive to the students that are in our district,” said Reynolds assistant director of public relations and partnerships Steve Padilla.

Curriculum is an allowable use of ESSER III funds by ODE and the US Dept of Education, though it may not be directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“ESSER funds may be used for activities indirectly related to the impact of COVID-19, including addressing challenges that existed before the pandemic,” according to the Oregon Department of Education’s Frequently Asked Questions page on ESSER III.

Padilla said the district is still considering what curriculum to bring into the classroom.

Other districts, including Newberg and Pendleton, also plan to spend ESSER III funds on curriculum.

ODE Director Gill sees a connection between the effects of COVID-19 on student mental health and planned investments in curriculum related to social-emotional learning. Gill says it’s about ensuring students are ready to learn.

“The social-emotional learning curriculum is more about readiness for academic learning, and ensuring that every student that is coming into the space feels welcome, supported, loved, and appreciated,” Gill said. “...it really is about mental health and well-being.”

Like Medford and Salem-Keizer, Reynolds is also directing some of its ESSER III funds on finding more learning time for students. Reynolds is offering a 6-week program by partnering with community organizations. A review of ESSER III plans from more than 30 Oregon school districts found at least two-thirds planning on using federal dollars this summer, even with a second year of state funding dedicated to summer programming.

An analysis of ESSER III planning for more than 3500 districts nationwide from Burbio shows something similar: almost two-thirds out of thousands of districts include summer learning as part of their plans.

Still early in spending

Generally, there are a few things we know about Oregon’s ESSER III spending so far. School districts have until September 2024 to spend these funds – more than two years left.

That may sound like a long time, but it’s not enough time for some school groups.

In January, a group of national organizations sent a letter to Education Department secretary Miguel Cardona asking for an extension to December 2026 due to supply chain issues and delays with capital projects.

In Oregon, as of March 24, 5.1% of funds have been claimed by school districts, $51 million dollars out of more than $1 billion.

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