By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on April 14, 2021
The Dare County School District is slated to receive an estimated $7.5 million in federal dollars aimed at student learning losses caused by the COVID pandemic – funding that Superintendent John Farrelly says the district intends to put directly toward hiring teachers as well as the rollout of a robust summer enrichment program and possible after-school tutoring programs beginning next fall.
The money, and the programs it will fund, are part of an effort to close what Farrelly has often referred to as “the learning gap.”
Farrelly told the Dare County Board of Education during its April 13 meeting that the monies are being allocated in three waves — the last two being separate allotments of $2.3 million that must be used by September 2023, and another $5.2 million to be used by 2024. The funds are part of the $70 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, which falls under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplement Appropriation Act passed by Congress.
In addition to a now state-mandated summer enrichment program aimed at at-risk students, the hiring of as many as 20 new teachers, additional social workers and instructional coaches could be in the offing thanks to the new funding. The superintendent also indicated that natural attrition rates could help the district hold on to some of the highly effective new hires once federal funding dries up.
“If we can have a significant impact in two years, we can close the learning gap significantly in that amount of time,” he asserted. “So, we may face some challenges two or three years out, but the kids need us, and they need us to impact their learning and advance it as quickly as we can in the shortest amount of time.”
Farrelly noted that the new hires would be notified that their positions were federally funded, but also told that if they are highly effective in their jobs, the district will find a way to keep them.
“If [students] are getting face-to-face time with your highest effective teachers, we can really move mountains,” he stated.
Additional staff, Farrelly noted, allows the district the opportunity to potentially reduce class sizes, provide more remedial options for students and address mental health and wellness needs as well.
The district is required to submit an initial application to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction by May 7 in order to access the funds immediately. Once the district receives the funding, it has 30 days to post a plan showing how it intends to spend the money, receive public input and then finalize the plan.
“The greatest impact on students is an effective teacher,” Farrelly noted. “The greatest way that we can impact learning loss in Dare County Schools is to increase either learning time or access to highly effective teachers…we’re going to have a heavy emphasis on people.”
In addition, the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 12— called the School Extension Learning Recovery Enrichment Program — last week. The legislation requires each district to provide at least 30 days, or 150 hours of enrichment programming over the summer that prioritizes at-risk students.
“We have to give priority to the at-risk students first, and then if there’s capacity following that, we could open up programs to other students who want to participate,” Farrelly noted, adding that the district is tentatively looking at the first two weeks of summer break, and then from late July to Aug. 1, to offer the summer program.
The program will include instructional time with a focus on core subjects, enrichment and physical activity. In an effort to attract experienced and high-performing teachers, the state-mandated program includes $1,200 bonuses for teachers who have previously received different awards or who are national board certified. Third-grade teachers will receive a $150 bonus for each student they bring from a below-proficiency reading level to a level of proficiency by the end of the program.
The summer program, Farrelly pointed out, is not required. “We can’t mandate summer attendance by anyone. We’d love to have every at-risk kid, but those are individual family decisions,” he said. “The good news is we can offer a high-quality program, and we hope that families take advantage of it and we’ll certainly try to promote it to the best of our ability.”
An after-school tutoring program, the superintendent suggested, could perhaps be an hour and a half for one or two days a week. Both the after-school and summer programs would provide transportation and meals and snacks.
He added that the district anticipates getting information regarding the summer enrichment program out to families in the next week to 10 days.
Of the large allocation coming to the district, Farrelly said, “I don’t recall seeing any dollars like this in North Carolina since Race to the Top [Early Learning Challenge], and even then, that doesn’t even touch what the allocations are across the country and certainly in Dare County. We can do a lot with that and we need to, and we need to do it right.”