Are English learners catching up with the big lift offered by ESSER?

How districts in five states are using relief funds to expand tutoring, family outreach and develop more multilingual teachers.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has extended its Navigator social-emotional learning program over the last few years, using ESSER funds to check in on and connect with English learners and their families. Chicago Public Schools spent some of its COVID relief to expand a 20-week ESL tutoring program to promote language development and make students more comfortable with academic content.

Those are just two of the ways school districts are using the three rounds of ESSER to provide fresh momentum to programs designed to boost achievement for English learners “beyond pandemic response,” according to new “Moving the Needle” research from the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute.

Many districts, however, invested ESSER funds in pre-pandemic initiatives that had not been as successful for English learners, write Migration Policy Institute researchers Julie Sugarman and Lorena Mancilla. “The question remains whether school districts will be able to sustain the new resources, programs, and outreach efforts once the ESSER funds, which are being disbursed through September 2024, are gone,” they attested. “Without sustained education investments, the effects of the pandemic on children’s educational progress will not wane.”

English learners & ESSER

ESSER funds are being spent to support English learners in four broad areas: academic recovery, social-emotional learning, student re-engagement and teacher retention and capacity. Here are some examples:

1. Academic recovery: Chicago Public Schools spent $2 million to expand summer programming for 9,000 students. The district also added to its tutoring programs, which have been shown to not only support language acquisition but also help English students build confidence and independence. Metro Nashville Public Schools, meanwhile, purchased new English language development software that covers curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

2. Social-emotional learning: Azusa USD in California has invested in Care Solace software to provide social-emotional and mental health assistance to district families. The software can be used to book appointments, contact a crisis hotline and speak with a “care companion” who helps families with insurance claims and find care providers.

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Metro Nashville Public Schools opened community support hubs in four high-need areas to connect students and families with social-emotional support and wraparound support services such as housing, food, technology and attendance assistance.

3. Student re-engagement: Chicago Public Schools developed a “prioritization index” that steered re-engagement efforts toward students most in need of individualized support. The district also hired about 500 outreach ambassadors to conduct home visits and organize youth activities. Other school districts have increased translation and interpretation services.

4. Teacher retention and capacity: Growing teachers’ multilingual abilities has been one target of ESSER funding in several districts. Illinois is awarding $4 million in grants to help more bilingual educators become certified. St. Paul Public Schools, for example, is using $1.9 million to support its coaching model that allows ESL and bilingual teachers to share best practices with general education teachers. The district is also forming partnerships with local universities to launch grow-your-own teacher certification programs for St. Paul’s non-teacher employees.

Regardless of the strategy, the researchers encourage district leaders to be gathering data to share best practices and determine whether programs for English learners are producing successful outcomes.

“The pandemic introduced new challenges in the classroom that in many ways escalated the importance of focusing attention on the nation’s 5 million ELs,” they concluded. “While ESSER funds provided school districts much-needed relief to address impacts directly associated with the pandemic, they also served to fill gaps due to historically inadequate funding for ELs and allowed districts to invest in resources and programs that were long overdue.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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