Breaking down silos while using available resources

Mesa Public Schools in Arizona is using federal funds to serve students in various ways and increase efficiencies.
By: | November 4, 2020
Getty Images, miljkoGetty Images, miljko

Districts are working to leverage available funds to provide services across a number of learning options for SY 2020-21 that include remote-only, hybrid, or in-school only. They are trying to serve as many students as possible.

Dr. Patricia Estes, director of federal grants for Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools, is in charge of Title I and school improvement. She also coordinates with specialists or directors in a variety of programs supported by federal grants. Estes says part of her job is to “reduce siloing among the various departments and make sure we’re not duplicating efforts, and make sure we are coordinating our efforts together for the most effective use.”

The district is leveraging part of its $17 million in CARES Act ESSER funds to backfill funding for projects and initiatives the district undertook in the wake of the COVID-19 closure to prepare buildings for students to return. “ESSER has a lot more flexibility than some of the other grants, so we are moving those funds where we need,” Estes says. The district also used ESSER funds to backfill the cost of the summer nutrition program, including salary for staff to prepare and distribute the meals.

Mesa is working to reach students who are most at risk or eligible for McKinney-Vento homeless assistance, says Estes. The district worked to connect to the families by creating a weekly “bus-parade” down a street with several hotels that house nearly 400 families who may be at risk or eligible for homeless services. Estes said the bus parade delivers food and hygienic products, and as more resources became available, laptops and access to Wi-Fi and hotspots.

The district has not yet reallocated Title I funds to address the needs for the COVID-19 pandemic, but the funding allocations will be revised this fall once the district receives its carryover allowance. For example, she says, the district’s 52 Title I schools had planned for travel or to attend conferences that are no longer possible given the pandemic, so the district will reallocate those funds “where the school site needs them.”

Here are some of Mesa’s other efforts to serve students:

  • Use available funds wisely. Mesa has “deep pockets” and was able to adapt to the changing needs of the district. The district spent funds when the crisis hit to prepare buildings for student return, such as reconfiguring classrooms, providing hand sanitizers, and installing plexiglass shields. Now, the district is using its ESSER funds in part to backfill those costs from spring and summer 2019.
  • Look for new ways to support students, families. Mesa needed a way to ensure parents and students had access to needed resources or referrals for services. Now, the opening webpage on Mesa’s website has a “bright red button or link that says ‘I need help,'” Estes says. If a parent doesn’t know “who to call, or where to go, or what to do, they press that button, they write down their problem, and we have full-time employees dedicated to redirecting our parents to address whatever their question was.”
  • Tap into community supports. Mesa partnered with for-profit, nonprofit, and local government agencies over the summer to help provide educational technology and software for online virtual learning, food and nutrition services, and hygiene products as it pivoted to new models for serving students remotely.
  • Leverage existing programs. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mesa had a “very robust” distance learning program for students in junior and senior high schools participating in a one-to-one laptop program. However, Estes says, it was a major challenge to get laptops to elementary students. The district had laptops for elementary school students, but they were connected to laptop carts that stayed at home. Over the summer, the district had teams break down the carts to provide those laptops to elementary students to continue their online learning.
  • Look ahead to new challenges. Estes says the district is concerned with the child count for Title I services in the next few months. Free and reduced-price lunch is available to all students through June 30, 2020. This presents a potential challenge because families that would normally qualify and apply for school nutrition programs may not be doing so. Applications are used to calculate the rate of free and reduced-price eligible students, which in turn affects Title I funding. Estes believes the district will need to make sure that it is communicating the need to apply for school nutrition programs with eligible families to ensure the district does not lose funding.

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for TitleIAdmin, a DA sister publication.