Opinion: Showering School Districts with Money Means Nothing If We Aren’t Engaging Communities

S. Kwesi Rollins, Senior Vice President for Leadership and Engagement 

Despite billions of dollars allocated in federal aid to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of challenges persist that have hindered progress in reading and math for elementary and middle-school students.

The pandemic created two years of unprecedented disruptions to typical school-based learning, requiring teachers, parents and students to teach and learn using virtual platforms literally overnight. 

The national reaction to this dramatic chain of events recognizes the current crises, but several recently proposed solutions either focus on the wrong things (like “accountability and action”) or don’t address root causes. There’s no doubt that the years of schooling under extraordinary conditions wiped away years of progress. But all the “urgency” we can muster won’t turn back the clock. We need sound thinking and sustainable solutions – especially for our most vulnerable students. 

Unsurprisingly, the stark differences in achievement by district vary by factors beyond the control of public schools. One study found that race/family income were the strongest predictors of school instructional mode during the pandemic. We know there are many other contributors, such as widespread chronic absenteeism, lack of family engagement, and an increase in students struggling with mental health or well-being, that are leading to disproportionate differences in achievement. 

While ESSER funds used for some relief efforts have proven to help students, persistent post-pandemic staffing shortages are a major obstacle on the road to recovery.  ESSER funds were used creatively in some respects, but as school districts understandably worry about a fiscal cliff, re-adjusting to their pre-pandemic budgets will likely lead to further disruptions.

Filling teaching positions was already difficult before the pandemic, but the complexities of the national teacher shortage and other staffing issues have been exacerbated by unequal conditions in districts with higher concentrations of students of color, special needs students,  and/or from low-wealth, historically underserved communities. The expiration of ESSER funds threatens a return to conditions that were already taxing for our most vulnerable students and stressful for staff as districts worry about the sustainability of various roles and positions.

Data shows that recovery programs were not as effective on their intended scale due to these staffing shortages and low student engagement. The Biden Administration’s decision to support initiatives like universal school meals, pandemic academic recovery and remote learning through funding should be commended, but we cannot stop there. 

Investing in our schools isn’t just about money, but also investing in the professionals that serve our students, and the communities that our students and their families live in.

While there are common challenges in many places around the country, we need hyper-localized solutions to meet the unique needs of each community. When communities, families, and schools truly engage with one another, appropriate use of funds can be allocated for stronger capacity building and deeper collaboration. Inaction around using remaining relief funds only deepens inequities faced by students who need our help. We must serve the students that we can now.

Under the immediate pressure of the COVID-19 shutdown, many district leaders reverted to old behaviors, making quick decisions behind closed doors and not consulting families and community partners. Old habits die hard. That lack of engagement undermined trust and confidence in many districts, becoming an impediment to change.

In my role at the Institute for Educational Leadership, I work with district leaders, community-based organizations, parent leaders and others, learning what’s happening on the ground while supporting local efforts in their communities. Districts are not immune to the tendency to search for silver bullets, quick fixes, or buying off-the-shelf remedies that only scratch the surface or address symptoms. While some of these choices may have been short-sighted or even problematic, to put all the blame on school districts is an oversimplification of a bigger problem. 

Through ongoing community conversations and engagement, we can identify the unique needs of the populations we serve. Investing in family engagement strategies for teachers, school leaders and other staff can help communities address real challenges, some that may have existed before the pandemic like food insecurity, community violence and poverty.

Whole-child strategies like Community Schools are another worthy investment, with proven results and increasing adoption in recent years, as they were better able to meet the urgent and evolving needs of the communities they served during the pandemic

Not only do Community Schools prioritize engaging families and students, but the collaborative structure and reliance on partnerships enable them to provide services to support the child holistically. Research shows that by addressing the issues that students experience outside of the classroom, we can improve attendance, graduation rates and performance measures. Schools cannot address these complexities alone.  We need to commit to deeper collaboration and stronger family-school-community partnerships, and the time is now.

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