CSBA webinar showcases ways districts can meet student needs with expanded learning opportunities

School district leaders and researchers explored the strategies, investments and best practices for expanded learning initiatives that can address the disruption of COVID-19 on education during a May 4 CSBA webinar.

The second in a two-part series, “Expanding Learning: Governance for Developing Effective Learning Recovery Plans,” highlighted the importance of using evidence-based practices and scaffolding supports to ensure students re-engage in their learning. In fact, a recent influx of federal and state funds requires that a percentage be used for evidence-based learning recovery strategies.

“What we’re talking about is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage our students, engage our staff and engage our communities in a very different way,” said Jeff Harris, superintendent of Del Norte County Unified School District. “This coming year can’t be about remediation — it really needs to be about intervention to the extent you need it, but really about acceleration. It really is about looking at the data to determine what students need.”

Harris, as well as Jurupa USD Trustee Robert Garcia, Rio School District Superintendent Dr. John Puglisi, Orange USD Assistant Superintendent of Business Services David Rivera and Newman-Crows Landing USD Trustee Paul Wallace detailed their local educational agencies’ expanded learning plans for the upcoming school year.

District plans include increasing after-school tutoring and other programming as well as transportation capacity to allow participation among bus-riding students, expansion of mental health services and social-emotional learning, improving reading intervention for early learners and credit recovery for older youth, expanding the breadth of professional development, improving family and community outreach, reducing class sizes, and training and hiring additional staff in various capacities.

Strategies backed by research, one-time funding

The pandemic has created obvious challenges for LEAs, but also significant opportunities to improve offerings that data show can greatly benefit the whole child, said Policy Analysis for California Education Executive Director Heather Hough.

“The disruption in the status quo has presented an opportunity,” Hough said. “Our systems were not well-structured to serve all kids even before the pandemic, and now we’ve had both a break in that status quo, but also so much innovation at the local level that we can take advantage of in thinking about the path forward.”

By redesigning schools to be restorative places where students feel safe, understood, supported and fully engaged in learning, LEAs can accelerate student learning and lay the groundwork for long-term and systemic transformation, Hough explained.​

Within the first few weeks of the 2021–22 academic year, Hough said every LEA should conduct regular student wellness screenings, utilize interim or diagnostic assessments to determine current learning needs, review prior year data on attendance, engagement and grades, and discuss student needs and assets with families and other stakeholders.

Once schools have an idea of specific student needs, they can begin to implement engaging, hands-on targeted supports proven to benefit children, including high-dosage tutoring and mentoring, mental health counseling and tiered re-engagement supports.

There are also several important considerations as boards of education plan expanded opportunities, such as:

  • Partnering with community-based organizations is critical for implementing these programs
  • Investing in ongoing and embedded professional development​
  • Increasing time for professional development and teacher collaboration in the workday​

The good news is there has been a substantial influx in federal and state funding to help LEAs implement these sorts of program and training opportunities, according to Kelsey Krausen, senior engagement manager of WestEd’s Comprehensive School Assistance Program.

With education funding in the American Rescue Plan; Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security; and Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Acts combined, per-pupil spending allocated by the federal government for the 2020–21 academic year is pushing nearly $4,000 — about triple that of the school years from 2011 to 2018.

Of the $6.6 billion provided to LEAs through California’s Assembly Bill 86, $4.6 billion is allocated in the form of Expanded Learning Opportunities Grants, which can only be spent on extending instructional learning time, integrated pupil supports, community learning hubs, additional academic services, training for school staff, supports for credit-deficient pupils and accelerating progress to close learning gaps. Find the full list of acceptable uses here. The California Department of Education released a template for ELO Grant Plan in March that LEAs must complete and adopt at a public meeting on or before June 1, 2021, as a condition for receiving the grant.

As is often the case, LEAs should be wary of allocating one-time funding for ongoing spending with no end date, such as teacher salaries. However, that doesn’t mean districts can’t get creative in using the funding, even for staffing, Krausen.

Strong investments of one-time funds for expanded learning opportunities can include recruiting retiring or aspiring teachers for tutoring programs, investing in capacity building, building partnerships with other local child-serving agencies, and infrastructure investments​, she explained.

Moving forward, it will be both critical and beneficial for LEAs to align this new funding and the plans now under development with their existing improvement efforts.

“There’s a real opportunity to build on existing improvement efforts. We imagine a lot of the same students who have been identified for additional support in the past are likely to need additional support now,” Krausen said. “Some of the strategies that you’ve already started that you’re seeing are working, you can double down on those strategies.”

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