Nearly all assessment data shows students from marginalized communities lost more ground during the pandemic than their White and wealthier peers, even though some signs say overall student learning is starting to improve.
The $121.9 billion in American Rescue Plan funds — the largest federal one-time investment in K-12 funding — is meant to propel student learning in the wake of COVID-19 school closures. At least 20% of that money must be spent to address learning loss, and districts must address the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on marginalized students.
A district guide from The Education Trust released last month helps education stakeholders and advocates prioritize rigor and equity when planning to spend ARP dollars.
The guide focuses on five areas Ed Trust said are important to advancing equity: accelerated student learning; student, family and community engagement; safe and equitable learning environments; teacher recruitment and retention; and data equity and reporting transparency.
"Continued federal and state investment is crucial," said Allison Socol, vice president for P-12 policy, practice and research at Ed Trust, in a statement. "However, how well funds are spent is equally important."
The guide also shares examples of how four districts have invested ARP dollars toward equitable practices.
Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia
Although the city, located just outside of Washington, D.C., is one of the most affluent in Virginia, 60% of the district's students rely on free or reduced-price school meals. The district also has barriers communicating with families whose home language is not English.
The district has used COVID-19 emergency funding and its own operating expenses to hire an additional Spanish-speaking liaison and full-time Arabic-speaking and Amharic-speaking family liaisons. It plans to train more staff to work with families using a cultural competency lens, with intentions to grow a community of Spanish-, Amharic- and Arabic-speaking families who can to advocate for and support programs in the district.
Lessons learned so far from this approach are that asking families what they needed through surveys and focus groups helped the district with its initial plans, Krishna Leyva, family and community engagement manager at ACPS, told Ed Trust.
Leyva also said conforming to families' needs, rather than having families adapt to district needs, helped propel the engagement effort. For example, the district began offering communications on WhatsApp after realizing most immigrant families use that tool as a main form of communication.
Dallas Independent School District in Texas
In Dallas, officials noted students of color and students from low-income backgrounds faced more barriers to participate in online learning during school closures. Even when school did reopen, these students had less access to after-school and extracurricular activities.
As a result, the district, after receiving community input, extended the school year at 46 schools serving 22,000 students. Students at these high-priority campuses also had access to free after-school programming that runs for three hours Monday through Friday throughout the school year. The school system is collecting data on participant outcomes.
Dallas officials told researchers the key elements of their approach were community engagement and buy-in, as well as having clear program goals and a system for monitoring the program's effectiveness.
Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee
The district created an Accelerating Scholars Program, an intensive tutoring intervention for 4,000 students who receive small group tutoring for 30 minutes three times a week. In creating the program, the district prioritized students most impacted by the pandemic by developing an equity matrix using academic data.
Survey data from students and tutors is reviewed weekly by officials. Keri Randolph, former chief strategy officer of Metro Nashville Public Schools, told Ed Trust researchers that while the district wanted to provide tutoring to more students, it ultimately decided to keep the program smaller in order to ensure quality of instruction.
Randolph also said establishing the program took a lot of effort, but it led to a sustainable program that costs about $450 per student per semester.
Providence Public School District in Rhode Island
This district sought to dedicate federal emergency funding to hiring incentives for hard-to-fill teaching positions. As a result, individual incentives of up to $13,000 are available for those hired for math, science, special education, dual language/bilingual, speech and language pathology, school psychology, social work, library or nursing.
The district also provided extra stipends for those who signed a hiring contract early, relocated from another state, and had three or more years of experience. To measure the effect, district officials are conducting surveys or interviews with new hires to see if the incentives made a difference in their desire to work there.
But just filling vacancies shouldn't be the main goal, Gina D’Addario, the district's senior director of human resources, told researchers. Hiring individuals who aren't right for the job can be detrimental, she said.
The district also gave more hiring autonomy to school leaders and is using a new applicant tracking system to support screening and selecting candidates. Additionally, the district dedicated ARP funds for incentives, such as referral bonuses and other stipends and bonuses, to current employees.