Officials from West Hartford Public Schools shared plans for allocation of federal relief grant funds with the Board of Education.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Public Schools has been awarded federal relief grant monies totaling nearly $15 million, and officials shared with the Board of Education Tuesday night how those funds will be spent over the next three years.
The Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds were allocated to the district through three separate pieces of federal legislation, with different parameters applying to the use of each grant. The district’s largest piece, passed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, is available for use through Sept. 30, 2024.
The funds were not just a blanket handout, Superintendent Tom Moore said. The district was required to complete applications detailing the planned use for the money and Liz Hewitt, the district’s director of Budget and Finance, spent much of the summer applying for the grants.
“It does dry up,” Moore cautioned, noting that in a few years from now the Board will need to decide if some of the new initiatives and staff members supported by the grants should be in the education budget.
Other uses of the ESSER funds are more permanent in nature, either investments in tangible items or in training.
Hewitt told the Board Tuesday night that the process of deciding how to use the funds involved engagement with stakeholders, including the Parent Teacher Council, Bridge Family Center, Special Education PTO, and the West Hartford Education Association. “We sought their input to really address the needs of the community,” she said.
Hewitt, along with Assistant Superintendents Paul Vicinus and Andy Morrow, Director of Equity Advancement Roszena Haskins, and Director of Pupil Services Melissa Caballero, outlined the specific plans to allocate the funds. The full written report they presented can be found as a PDF below.
More than $9 million has been allocated for “academic renewal and learning acceleration,” which includes keeping class sizes small, Vicinus said, and adding reading and math interventionists to assist students who may have lost ground during the past academic year.
Recovery services, utilizing certified teachers, will also be provided for students with individualized education plans (IEPs), Caballero said. Additional pre-K sections, paraprofessionals, and a speech and language pathologist are also being funded.
Grant funds were already put to use over the summer in the form of expanding a variety of summer learning opportunities. The “Summer Connections” program, which has been limited to students from Charter Oak International Academy and Smith STEM School, was expanded to all elementary students. The ESOL Summer Program was also expanded, a summer program for middle school students was established, and high school students who failed a class and needed to make up the credit were able to enroll in the course without charge.
In order to support the social, emotional, and mental health of students as well as staff, the district has added social workers, clinical interventionists, and crisis interventionists. Funds are also being allocated to expand available non-athletic offerings to provide opportunities for students who do not play sports to help them re-engage with the community and join in social and enrichment activities.
The district is also “investing in partnerships” with organizations like the Bridge Family Center, Haskins said, helping students who are “reluctant to find their spark.” There are deliberate investments in the enhancement of family and school connections, proactively removing possible barriers.
Haskins added that teaching a social justice curriculum is “a moral imperative,” and something in which the district will continue to invest.
Several initiatives will be funded specifically to support staff professional development. Caballero said the district will invest in training in specialized instructional strategies to support students with dyslexia.
Also related to staff development, guidance counselors will receive additional training “to provide for an intimate understanding of the programs, campus and admission contacts, scholarship opportunities, and incentives available to college bound students,” the written report presented to the Board states.
The district is already a leader in providing training in computer science, but will expand that area of focus across all subject areas with skill building for teachers over the next two summers. “That’s the world that they need to prepare for,” Vicinus said.
In order to continue to support safe and healthy schools, Morrow said through the grants a full-time supervisor for nursing will be maintained, certified nursing assistants will be assigned to each elementary school, and additional funds will be allocated for the purchase of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
Funds will also be used to ensure that ventilation systems continue to operate at optimal capacity, and playgrounds will be refurbished to provide opportunities for safe outdoor recreation for students.
“Our plan is to utilize these funds over the next three years to meet student needs,” Hewitt said.
Board member Mark Zydanowicz stressed the importance of informing the public about what is being provided through the ESSER funds, and also managing expectations so there won’t be any surprises when the funds are no longer available in a few years. As an example, he noted, funds are currently being used so high school students do not have to “pay to play” sports, but families need to know that will change when the grant money is no longer available.
Moore agreed that it is important to be clear about the nature of the funds. “This isn’t an in-perpetuity position,” he said.
Vicinus said the district is grateful to have the federal support, and others agreed.
“The opportunity to bring in almost $15 million of funding into our district … it’s a silver lining,” Board Chair Deb Polun said.
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