How COVID relief funds could give Fort Worth schools ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’

·6 min read

Fort Worth school district leaders are using federal relief funds to hire more teachers, provide more learning materials, and add mental health resources and instructional time in an attempt to change the trajectory of the district.

The school district is getting more than $260 million over three years through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, a federal program intended to address the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools nationwide.

This is one of the largest blocks of funding the district has ever seen, according to district leaders, and is coming in after a year like no other.

Pandemic learning loss

Superintendent Kent Scribner said during a June 22 board meeting that Fort Worth school district, like many other urban districts, struggled through the pandemic despite encouraging achievement scores the prior school year.

Recent STAAR results show more students failed state reading and math exams in 2021 than in 2019. The steepest learning loss was in math, with about 16% more students failing in 2021 than in 2019.

The district struggled with declining enrollment before the pandemic, but enrollment numbers fell further in the past year.

Fort Worth’s pre-K program was down 38% in 2020-2021 compared to 2019-2020.

Teacher turnover has also been an issue nationwide, as the difficulty of the pandemic accelerated resignations and retirements.

“This will be a year of recovery,” Scribner said during the board meeting. “But it will also be a year to reset and do some things different. We’ve been blessed with the investment from the federal government so that we can really focus on improving student outcomes.”

Where relief funds are going

Hiring more teachers and staff is a priority, said chief academic officer Jerry Moore. The district aims to fill enough full-time positions to reduce class sizes and eliminate the need for teachers to serve two grade levels in the same classroom at the elementary level, as well as adding intervention classes for literacy and math at the middle school level and additional visual and performing art teachers.

The district also wants to add staff for high school freshman success teams and credit recovery teams to help students remain on track to graduate, and additional instruction like a Saturday learning program and individualized tutoring is intended to make up for learning loss.

Community-based services like family support staff, social emotional learning resources, increased after-school programs, counseling and more are intended to help students and families outside of the classroom.

Funding will also go to specialists, teachers and assistants for special education instruction.

The district also looks to strengthen its teacher pipeline with university partnerships, teacher assistant programs and providing a pathway for teacher assistants to become teachers.

Funding will be further used to provide school supplies for elementary students, and provide middle and high school teachers with $200 dollars for classroom materials.

Other programs and proposals will take shape throughout the three years as six-month progress surveys and analytics will measure the success of each initiative and determine where students, teachers and parents still need help.

Success and sustainability

Chief of innovation David Saenz said these funds are a rare opportunity to enhance the district and the support being provided to those who need it.

Raúl Peña, chief of elementary schools, said these programs are focused on accelerating student success, not just remediating students that are behind.

“[We’re] using the funds to change our trajectory,” he said. “Not only for our systems and how we hire or retain teachers but also how we teach students.”

District board members agree that this funding can uplift the district’s students and teachers.

“This really is a once in a generation, maybe once in a lifetime, opportunity,” Scribner said during the June 22 board meeting. “The magic is in the implementation.”

But board members said it’s important to have a plan to keep these new hires and new programs in place once the federal funding is gone. The funds are for one-time use and end after three years.

The district would need to enroll 9,000 to 12,000 additional students to maintain the hundreds of teachers and staff hired by the funds. Texas school districts receive funding in part based on enrollment.

“If we want the very best folks coming in to work for us, they need to know they’re going to have a career here,” said board member Michael Ryan. “I really don’t want to sit there after three years and say ‘Well, we have to make these cuts.’”

Moore said it’s hard to know for sure if there will ever be a point where a program gets cut even if it’s successful, but the district plans to prevent that from happening by evaluating and prioritizing the initiatives that prove effective.

He said the key to these efforts is the evaluations and updates every six-months to determine the performance of each program and make necessary adjustments.

He said they are aware that some initiatives may not yield the results they want, but also that some initiatives may work better at achieving student outcomes than something that’s already in place. That new initiative could replace older methods and ensure that the best program is in place.

Peña said they can also be specific about what programs will remain in which campuses based on what works and what’s needed.

The district is also working to improve attendance and enrollment, they said, and hopes these unique programs and resources will motivate more parents to want to be a part of the district.

Moore said ultimately they aren’t looking at the funds in isolation and could use other funding if a program is deemed important and successful enough.

“Any program that yields the positive results for our students, we will prioritize that program and we will have a way that sustains that resource,” he said.

Hiring could also be a potential roadblock for the district, with North Texas being one of the most competitive markets for teachers and staff. These competitive districts are also receiving funding.

Peña said it’s been challenging coming out of the pandemic, but principals have been steadfast in the hiring process.

Moore said that they have had success in some areas, such as hiring all the freshman success coaches they need for that program.

He said early initiatives have shown promise, with the district’s Summer Launch program having about 15,000 in attendance, triple the number of a traditional summer.

The first six-month review with public input is scheduled for January 2022 during the district board meeting.

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