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Florida schools adjust as federal pandemic relief money ebbs away

Tampa Bay area educators say they prepared for this, knowing the flow of funds would end one day.
 
Read Across Pinellas tutor Susan Cohen of Clearwater works on a reading lesson with first grader Za’mir Maceachron on Jan. 24 at Curlew Creek Elementary School in Palm Harbor.
Read Across Pinellas tutor Susan Cohen of Clearwater works on a reading lesson with first grader Za’mir Maceachron on Jan. 24 at Curlew Creek Elementary School in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 3

Za’mir Maceachron, a first grader at Curlew Creek Elementary, was not a big fan of school during his kindergarten year, so he had ground to make up this fall — particularly in reading.

In Read Across Pinellas, a school district tutoring program funded by federal pandemic relief grants, he worked through the basics and now he’s focusing on more complex combinations like “sh” and “wh.”

“I’m working on it so my brain will be stronger, so I can be the smartest kid,” Za’mir said during a break on a recent school day. “I try my best, and I get confused sometimes. I get help from my friends and my parents. I’m still working on it.”

Pinellas officials say the program has been such a success that they have structured their finances in a way that it can keep going after the funding that launched it runs out in the fall.

It’s one of several ways local school districts are coping with the loss of millions in relief money, leaving them with decisions to make on what programs they can afford to keep.

“It’s all about priorities,” said Pasco School Board member Colleen Beaudoin.

The grant, begun under former President Donald Trump and continued under President Joe Biden, brought nearly $10 billion to Florida schools to help them survive the economic and academic effects of the pandemic. In the Tampa Bay region, Hillsborough schools were allocated $766 million over the three cycles, Pinellas schools got $300 million and Pasco schools $201 million.

Bruce Baker, a public school funding expert at the University of Miami, said Florida districts should weather the end of the federal support better than they did at the end of the Great Recession, despite the loss of relief being about 10 times greater now.

When federal stimulus funds ran out 13 years ago, and the state did not replace the infusion, district officials scrambled to cut spending by millions.

This time around, Baker said, the economic effect of the pandemic was not as steep as initially projected, meaning the depth of Florida’s budget losses were not nearly as severe. Plus, the federal government did not restrict the use of the relief money so tightly to protecting jobs.

At the same time, he added, “we learned some lessons” from the Great Recession.

Districts did not commit one-time money as heavily to ongoing expenses such as salaries and benefits, for instance. Instead, they made investments into items like upgraded ventilation systems, vaccine clinics, cleaning supplies and technology for remote learning.

And when they hired new staff for things such as overcoming learning deficits or locating students who did not return, officials made clear to the jobholders that the initiatives were for a set period of time and would end if no other substitute money became available.

“There’s going to be a squeeze rather than a cliff,” Baker said.

In Hillsborough, the district added the Cambridge advanced program in high schools with the money, anticipating the funds the program generates from the state for successful course completions will make it self-sustaining over time. It expanded summer recovery programs, but made no plans to continue the effort after the money ended.

The federal money “was perfect for that sort of investment,” district spokesperson Tanya Arja said. She added that the district continues to evaluate remaining items paid for by the relief money.

Pasco officials are looking for ways to keep instructional assistants they added in kindergarten classrooms with the federal grant. Some residents have urged the school board to continue the positions.

A team of Pinellas administrators meets regularly to review the effectiveness of all grant-funded programs, and to adjust the offerings accordingly, said Stephanie Woodford, Pinellas County schools deputy superintendent. The district cut short a nearly $1 million intervention program at 23 high-need elementary schools, for instance, after determining the money could be more useful elsewhere, she said.

Through such a process, Pinellas officials decided the Read Across Pinellas program for elementary schools is worth keeping after the grant expires.

The district pays trained tutors $20 an hour to give individualized help two or three times weekly to hundreds of children, primarily in kindergarten and first grade, who are behind their classmates in literacy skills such as letter identification. Once the children catch up, they end the tutoring. Teachers remain on the lookout for others who need the added attention. In the past, the district was not able to afford such programs for students in these younger age groups.

The model started small, at about 30 schools, expanded over the summer and grew into all but a handful of elementary schools in the fall.

Katrina Schneider, an assistant principal at Curlew Creek Elementary, helped develop the program while working at the district office. She said she’s seeing its value daily at the Palm Harbor school as youngsters gain confidence in their abilities with the help of adults who focus solely on them for the 20 minutes they’re together.

“We were looking for something that would support a student not only academically, but also so they would have a mentor on the side,” Schneider said.

She said 90% of the students who participated last year have stayed at grade level or higher in their reading this year. “What we are giving them is lasting.”

Curlew Creek Elementary School first grader Aaliyah Barbieri spells "cat" while working on a reading lesson with the Read Across Pinellas program on Jan. 24 at the school in Palm Harbor.
Curlew Creek Elementary School first grader Aaliyah Barbieri spells "cat" while working on a reading lesson with the Read Across Pinellas program on Jan. 24 at the school in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Susan Cohen is one of the tutors. A retiree who began volunteering in the schools more than a decade ago, Cohen sees as many as 10 children a day, working with them on letter sounds leading to increasingly more difficult words.

There’s a lot of repetition, as the lessons build from session to session. She offers high-fives and words of encouragement as they do things such as spell and read familiar and new words.

“I had one girl last January. She introduced herself by saying, ‘I don’t know how to read,’” Cohen shared. “I told her, ‘It’s not an option. You’re going to learn.’”

Within four months, she said, the girl was reading signs in the hallways and books off the shelves, and asking for more.

“This is probably one of the best programs I’ve ever been involved with,” Cohen said.

Read Across Pinellas tutor Susan Cohen of Clearwater holds a letter sound card while working on a reading lesson with first grader Emiliano Alfonso on Jan. 24 at Curlew Creek Elementary School in Palm Harbor.
Read Across Pinellas tutor Susan Cohen of Clearwater holds a letter sound card while working on a reading lesson with first grader Emiliano Alfonso on Jan. 24 at Curlew Creek Elementary School in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Za’mir Maceachron, the first grader, had only praise for his tutor.

“When I’m with her, I get more attention,” he said. “And I’ve got more things to learn.”

Woodford said the district is able to keep this program — and perhaps others — by shifting existing resources, such as Title I federal funding for low-income students and other money in the general budget. That means “right-sizing” positions and programs so the district can afford the cost after federal funding is gone.

She wasn’t worried.

“I think we’ve been strategic,” Woodford said, “and not waited until, ‘Oh, wow, what are we going to do?’”