In the Shamong Township school district in southern New Jersey, about 30 miles from Philadelphia, a select group of elementary school students will spend part of the summer honing their reading and social-emotional skills under a white, 10 x 20 outdoor tent, not far from their homes.
They’ll read books geared toward building resiliency, and each book will be paired with an activity, including yoga focusing on balance and self-care, nature exploration, and a field trip to a local farm.
The program, which will be paid for by a part of the district’s share of the $129 billion that K-12 schools are receiving from the American Rescue Plan to help their recovery from the pandemic, is an example of what can emerge when district and school-level administrators collaborate—which is not always the case with federal funds and policies even when it’s required by law.
“We know what the needs of our teachers and students are much more than someone from the central office,” said Nicole Moore, the principal of Indian Mills School, who worked with Kerry Haines, the response-to-intervention teacher, to develop the outdoor summer outreach reading program.
“I may be the face that you see,” she said, “but I have consulted with each of the individual teachers [by asking] ‘What do you think will make this program better?’”
While Shamong’s principals had a huge role in their district’s spending decisions for the pandemic relief money, that’s different from how federal money typically gets spent by districts around the country. And the national organizations that represent principals have long argued that school leaders, who are closest to students, parents, and communities, are in the best position to inform spending and policy decisions.
Indeed, a new survey from the National Association of Elementary School Principals shows that while about three-quarters of those who responded were “somewhat familiar,” “very familiar,” or “extremely familiar” with their district’s plans for the latest round of federal money, about 26 percent had not been consulted at all in the planning process.
And 60 percent said it was “extremely important” for districts to consult principals in the process, according to the survey.
Danny Carlson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the NAESP, said while principals reported “decent” experiences, it was still troubling that only about a quarter said they were consulted a “great deal” or “a lot.”
“I think this question on consultation gets to the core of our concerns: If principals aren’t being consulted, district plans won’t sufficiently reflect the needs of principals and their schools,” he said.
Ronn Nozoe, the chief executive officer of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, shared a similar concern about bypassing principals.
“They know the day-to-day needs of their staff and students, they can give their states and districts detailed information about that it takes to return to the in-person environment in the fall,” Nozoe said.
Nozoe, a former principal and superintendent, doesn’t think that districts and states are deliberately sidelining principals. And plans from North Dakota and Tennessee submitted to the federal Education Department show that many are listening to their school leaders, he said. But the rush to comply with deadlines can mean that principals sometimes get overlooked, he said.
That’s a deep worry for principals, according to the NAESP survey. About 65 percent told the NAESP that they worried about a one-size-fits-all approach if districts didn’t get input from school leaders.
Elizabeth Garden, principal of the Leroy E. Mayo School, a K-5 school with 500 students in Holden, Mass., about 60 miles west of Boston, worries about whether her voice would count in the end.
The district asked principals to let the central office know what their needs were, but school leaders were also told that the district would have the final say, Garden said.
Garden’s priorities include programs to address students’ social-emotional needs, mental health, and unfinished learning.
Those programs will require additional staff —instructional coaches to work with teachers, interventionists for students, or a guidance counselor, she said.
“We are going to need more people,” she said.
For its part, the NASSP said local principals can best speak about their needs. But Nozoe said that a significant portion of the relief funds should go toward addressing social-emotional learning programs for both staff and students, equity gaps, and problems that existed before the pandemic, including teacher-shortages and shoring up the principal pipeline.
“This is a call to action for us,” Nozoe said. “The pandemic has highlighted huge gaps in delivery and systems, in coordination, in alignment—everything. …If there is a silver lining, this might be one of the silver linings.”
Moore knew how much her school was going to receive and the parameters for the funds.
She used that information to target specific challenges that emerged during the year.
Addressing SEL and unfinished learning
Indian Mills will offer full-day kindergarten to current kindergarten students this summer because the program was cut to two half-days this past year instead of five full days. About 70 percent of parents with eligible kindergartners enrolled their children in the summer program, Moore said.
“We feel like they took a hit during the pandemic because they got half of what they normally would,” Moore said.
The district also will pay for low-income students to attend summer camp at the local YMCA—something many of those students would not have had the opportunity to do.
“It’s not specifically SEL—it’s an opportunity for them to go out, and play, and enjoy nature,” while also engaging in activities like physical fitness, Moore said.
While Moore will spend the summer focusing on the youngest learners, some funds will also be used for remediation for older students during the next academic year.
The goal was to meet students in their neighborhoods, and offer them a chance to strengthen their reading and social-emotional skills in a nontraditional setting, Moore said. (About 5 percent of the school’s the 358 students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.)
The students, who were selected for the SEL-literacy program based on income, teacher recommendations, and their reading scores, live in a mobile housing community in the township.
Haines provides students a bag of grade-level-appropriate books every Tuesday, which students exchange for another bag of books on a weekly basis. (Students in the program range from incoming kindergarten to outgoing 4th grade.) And students will receive healthy snacks, including fresh fruits, while they’re in the program.
“We are hoping to level the playing field for all of our students and give these students an opportunity for some SEL and literacy-based activities that are not pencil-and-paper type activities,” she said.
Moore and her counterpart at the middle school were part of the administrative team that worked with Superintendent Christine Vespe and others in central office on how to prioritize the federal funds.
The middle school, for example, will open its library (which has been closed all year) and its maker space to students, parents, and the community during the summer.
“I always include the entire administrative team as it pertains to them, especially our principals,” Vespe said. “I feel they know the children and the needs of the children and the needs of the teachers the best.”
Moore knows that kind of collaboration between school and district administrators is not always the norm in school districts, especially in larger systems with layers of bureaucracy.
For Andre Hauser, the principal of Waterford High School in Waterford, Conn., for eight years, the process started with meetings with central office administrative team to discuss the rules and parameters for the federal funds and how the district wanted to spend the money. It continued through online collaboration, with building leaders posting their needs on shared Google Docs, Hauser said.
“It really became a question of, of the things we were looking for, what are the things we are going to be able to afford? What can we prioritize?” Hauser said.
“I was happy with the degree of building-level administration input and the degree to which the building practitioners were being asked what we needed,” he said.
The final decisions address many of Hauser’s concerns. The district is using some of the funding to become a fully 1-to-1 computer district in the fall—to take care of a need that became glaringly apparent during the pandemic.
At the district level, school staff will be increased at the middle and high school, in part through a consultant partnership with a community health clinic that will provide physical and behavioral health services on a referral basis to the middle and high school. The federal funds will cover the start-up cost, and the district hopes the program will become self-sustaining over time, Hauser said.
The district is also adding literacy tutors in every grade, who will work with students who’ve been identified as falling behind on literacy skills. And it’s adding a math teacher for more targeted math intervention in the high school.
That will alleviate a big concern for Hauser who was worried that the position was in danger of being eliminated. Rather than losing the position, the district will fund it with federal money for the next two years.
“We really are targeting those areas that were in need of shoring up due to the pandemic,” Hauser said. “It’s purpose-focused spending.”
While some of Hauser’s priorities made the final cut, “there’s always something more that you can do for kids,” he said, adding he would have liked more counseling staff. “But I was very happy with what made it into the final version.”
Hauser cites the district’s small size as the reason for the deep school-based engagement.
“You don’t have a great deal of layers and a great deal of central office staff,” he said. “Everyone knows what everyone’s expertise is; so you’re always incorporating the building-level people in decisionmaking.”
And while size may help, “it’s got to be intentional,” Hauser said.
“The idea of a school system being a collaborative place is just part of the culture of this community,” he said.