Student Well-Being

How Districts Can Keep After-School and Summer Learning Alive After ESSER Dries Up

By Alyson Klein — December 04, 2023 4 min read
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After-school and summer learning programs got a huge boost from the billions in federal relief aid provided to help schools recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that those dollars are dissipating, will the programs go away, too?

Roughly 8 in 10 school districts spent some of their federal COVID relief funds on after-school or summer learning, according to a report released recently by the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that studies extended day and summer learning.

For instance, the Ypsilanti, Mich., school district offered students in preschool through high school extended learning, including a high-dosage tutoring program and a summer camp that provided a mix of academic support and enrichment, Alena Zachery-Ross, the district’s superintendent, said on a Nov. 29 webinar sponsored by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

The tutoring program offered groups of no more than four students 50 hours a semester of academic support, Zachery-Ross said. The tutoring lasted a minimum of 10 weeks.

Over the summer, Ypsilanti students participated in Grizzly Camps, a four-week, five-hour-per-day program named after a local mascot that included math and literacy instruction, as well as classes in robotics, cooking, engineering, music, art, and even Marvel Comics. Students were given free lunch and breakfast.

Kids gave the program great reviews. “Learning can be extremely fun for our students as well as [providing] rapid acceleration,” Zachery-Ross said.

The Gwinnett County, Ga., district outside Atlanta added school counselors to the staff of its summer programs, to help support students’ mental health needs along with their academic ones, said Calvin Watts, the district’s superintendent, who also spoke on the AASA webinar.

The counseling support was “instrumental to helping remove some of the barriers” to success in the summer programs, he explained. The district had “some students who didn’t want to show up for summer learning because they were embarrassed” that they needed the extra academic support, he said. Counselors could tell them, “Well, no, this is an opportunity for you to become the very best version of yourself.”

Gwinnett also spent some of its federal money on a summer bookmobile, a repurposed school bus that drove around to parts of the district where libraries are scarce, offering students reading and learning materials, as well as meals and snacks.

The bus program helped the district “make sure that the students were not only well fed in their tummies, but also that their brains were well fed [through] their reading material,” Watts said.

Federal funds may help extended learning and summer programs serve students ‘holistically’

Districts have until Sept. 30 of next year to commit their final round of pandemic relief funding, and until Jan. 30 of 2025 to spend the money. As those dollars wind down, districts can tap other federal funding streams to support extended learning programs, Scott Palmer, the co-founder of EducationCounsel, a consulting organization, said during the webinar. Last year, EducationCounsel created a guide for districts on how to use federal funds to build, sustain, and support after-school programs.

For instance, districts can use grants from the U.S. departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services to support summer internships and other career-learning experiences for older students.

They can use money both from programs in the Education Department, such as Title I grants for disadvantaged students, and from Health and Human Services—such as Child Care and Development Block Grant funds—for family engagement for these programs.

“The bottom line is that there’s a lot of federal funding streams that can support some or all of the components of effective [after-school and summer] programs, and hopefully give us a way to think about this more systemically, more holistically, even as some funds sunset,” Palmer said.

But, he added, being creative about federal grants is “not a panacea for the question of how we sustain and how we grow” after-school and summer learning programs, including those started or enhanced with pandemic relief money.

“Federal funds only go so far, and there are other important uses of these federal funds,” Palmer acknowledged.

Another way to sustain these efforts is community partnerships, both superintendents said.

Ypsilanti, for instance, now has connections with local nonprofits—such as My Brothers Keeper, a program aimed at supporting young men of color, and Foster Grandparents, a mentoring program—that can help the district support extended learning programs, even after the federal dollars go away, Zachery-Ross said.

“Our partners come in, they are bringing even more ideas, they bring in more funders,” Zachery-Ross said. “We’re just very fortunate.”

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