Across Colorado, school districts are just starting to figure out how to spend a sizable slice of federal money that’s aimed at helping the education system recover from months during which classmates and teachers were disconnected from one another and test scores plummeted.
The approaches will differ by size, location and need of the district. Douglas County will focus on delivering more individual instruction for students in school, like literacy support and tutoring. Westminster will expand its partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of America for after-school social and emotional support beyond the classroom.
And in the tiny Monte Vista School District in southern Colorado, the focus will be on hiring new teachers and reducing class sizes for a better learning experience.
This latest round of federal COVID-19 funding is different from previous ones because it contains a forward-looking piece: a requirement that at least 20% of any district’s allocation must be used to address pandemic-induced “learning loss.”
“It’s a chance for districts in the state to step back from emergency response only,” said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning at the Colorado Department of Education. “All we’ve been able to do for 18 months is react, react, react. Now we need to find ways to rapidly close these learning gaps. How do we make up for what was lost?”
Denver Public Schools was allocated the most in Colorado at $210 million. By contrast, the Kim School District in the far southeast corner of the state garnered just $10,000. No matter the allocation, districts have through Sept. 30, 2024, to spend the money, which came from the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, commonly known as ESSER III.
Colsman added that the situations from district to district are not “one-size-fits-all.”
“Our rural communities were able to have in-person learning for most, if not all, of last year,” she said. “Then again, the Boys & Girls Club is available in the metro area but not in rural areas.”
The problems in learning over the last 18 months were made apparent last week with newly released results from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, though some education experts question the significance of the data because of last year’s unprecedented school year and the higher number of kids who opted out of taking the test.
In math, students who “met or exceeded expectations” fell by about five percentage points in fourth and sixth grades, and by more than seven percentage points in eighth grade, compared to 2019.
In the previous three years, the largest drop was one percentage point. There were also declines in language arts scores.
Smaller class sizes
Mario Ortiz’s 4-year-old son attended a pre-kindergarten class last year in Westminster Public Schools, and struggled to learn remotely when COVID surges closed schools.
“The instructional time was really, really low,” Ortiz said of remote learning. “The instructional time for the whole day was not more than an hour.”
He remembers his son announcing to the rest of his online classroom that he was bored.
“It was very taxing because no one sat down with parents to teach them how to teach their kids,” said Ortiz, who himself is a high school teacher in another district.
He and his wife tried to help their son, but many families in Westminster Public Schools couldn’t because they are low-income and have front-line jobs they can’t do from home. Ortiz said the district could address that — and the learning loss that came with it — by focusing on “before-school and after-school care.”
That’s the plan, said Sandra Nees, chief financial officer for Westminster Public Schools. The district’s after-school arrangement with the Boys & Girls Club, which it hopes to expand with the new federal dollars, should help address the “social/emotional aspect” of education, she said, by cutting through the isolation and disconnect brought on by the pandemic.
The 8,500-student district northwest of Denver was allocated nearly $19 million in ESSER III funds, $16 million of which will address learning loss. Aside from the Boys & Girls Club, the district focused on summer school, before- and after-school programs and reduced class sizes.
To reach the latter, they’ll hire 50 more teachers — for a total of 800 districtwide — over the next two years. That includes counselors, special education teachers and English language learner interventionists to help students who risk falling behind.
“The smaller class sizes will make it possible for teachers to help kids who are struggling and need more assistance,” Nees said.
The district also plans to use half a million ESSER III dollars to hire tutors for the current academic year. Because the money is a one-time allocation, Nees said she hopes there will be a renewed commitment among lawmakers and voters to buttress education funding in Colorado past 2024.
“We’re going to hold on and hope in three years that the state will come back with additional funding for education,” she said.
More help from state
A major concern from district leaders is the stability of education funding once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, according to Colorado Department of Education Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Okes.
As recently as 2018, Colorado voters soundly rejected a $1.6 billion ballot measure to fund schools.
“We do hear there is still a desire to address the systemic, long-term funding issues,” she said.
While there are no immediate answers to overall school funding issues in Colorado, she pointed out that 10% of the nearly $1.2 billion in ESSER III money is allocated to the state. Of that amount, the education department plans to put more than $80 million towards addressing learning loss, including with after-school and summer programming.
The 1,150-student Monte Vista School District, which is in the rural and sparsely populated San Luis Valley, will see $2.67 million in ESSER III cash. Superintendent Scott Wiedeman said the district — like many across the state — employed a hybrid system during the pandemic.
“It was hard to keep kids engaged in everyday school,” he said. “Pretty soon, those kids who aren’t engaged disappeared and were hard to find. We lost our relationship with some of our kids.”
But the district was able to scramble, shifting art, music and physical education teachers into classrooms, and bringing class sizes down to from 20 to 25 students to 13 to 15.
Wiedeman said the district plans to use 60% of its ESSER III windfall to tackle learning loss, including the hiring of an instructional coach and a reading interventionist. Monte Vista also will extend the employment of nine new teachers through 2024.
Wiedeman hopes the smaller classes that result from the increased staffing lead to more individualized instruction experiences that catch students before they fall through the cracks.
“I think it’s given us the opportunity to do things we’ve never done before,” Wiedeman said.
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