The Palo Alto Unified School District will be expanding its summer school programs to support students who have been impacted the most by the pandemic, who include but are not limited to low-income or homeless students, students with disabilities, English learners and students at risk of abuse and neglect.
As part of the $4.6 billion Expanded Learning Opportunities Grants program, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 5 with the intent to address learning gaps or barriers that may have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, the district outlined during a board meeting on Tuesday night how it will use more than $7.4 million in state grants to support students at a disadvantage.
Of note within the district's spending plan is increased instructional time, particularly by expanding summer learning opportunities this year and in 2022.
Both elementary and middle school summer programs this year, for example, will be four weeks long. The elementary school program will focus on students struggling in reading and math, the spending plan states. Summer middle school students will be able to take three courses that are "unified by a common theme or pathway" such as literacy through graphic novels, poetry exploration and cooking, according to the plan.
"The (Expanded Learning Opportunities program) is to basically create a learning recovery program in response to the pandemic," said Sharon Ofek, district associate superintendent of educational services.
High school students in the district's summer program will get six weeks that will either consist of credit recovery courses or "kick-start" courses that allow students to take classes for credit or non-credit. Credit recovery courses give students the chance to recover up to two courses each three-week session or 20 credits in total. Students can also take courses worth up to 10 credits in the summer to lighten their class load during the regular school year. While not the focus of the grant program, non-credit, non-traditional classes also will be offered by the district, such as public speaking or crime scene investigation forensics.
Details for the 2022 summer program will be released later following the upcoming school year.
The two years of summer programs is projected to take up a hefty portion of the Expanded Learning Opportunities grant funds: $2.3 million for 2021 and $2 million for 2022.
Part of the reason the district plans to invest much into its summer program is out of necessity. The state program stipulates that 85% of the grant funds must be used for in-person learning services. The district also has a tight deadline and must spend the money by Aug. 31, 2022, Ofek said.
The rest of the funds must be used on hiring paraprofessionals to provide supplemental instruction for English learners and students with disabilities (at least 10%) and improving distant learning services (15%).
So far, the district has outlined about $7.4 million worth of resources for its expanded learning program, with some costs not yet disclosed and more accurate numbers to be released in the near future. Some of the overall expenditures are also on resources that were previously approved by the board such as the phonics instruction training, which is estimated to cost $700,000.
Feedback from parents, teachers, students and school staff was collected to determine how the district will spend the funds. And according to the spending plan, the district will assess the needs of its students through several different means based on grade level. For example, the district will be looking at end-of-year readings scores for its preschool to fifth grade students. For middle and high school students, the district will look at 2020-21 grades and 2021-22 first quarter grades. Teacher observation and referrals will also be collected for all grade levels.
Expanding summer school is just one of seven strategies the district briefly discussed during the board meeting for its learning recovery program. Among the other seven are further training for school staff to better support "improved student learning, social-emotional needs, and closing learning gaps resulting from the pandemic."
Additional plans include training that will help staff support student physical and mental health as well as "equity workshops" aimed to address "bias, systemic racism and equitable instructional practices."
"I was really happy to see in here the training that specifically called out bias and systemic racism, and then also equitable instructional practices and restorative practices," district board member Jesse Ladomirak said. "These are a few of the things that we talked about briefly at the first meeting of the Equity Committee."
Other strategies include:
• "Accelerating progress to close learning gaps" by expanding resources such as an online software for students in need of supplemental math instruction; phonics instruction for struggling readers; and more diverse books and home libraries for students from low-income families.
• Providing "community learning hubs" that have Wi-Fi access and hot spots.
• Supporting "credit deficient students" through credit recovery opportunities as outlined in its expanded summer learning program.
• Addressing other barriers of learning partly by increasing the use of surveys to gather more data on student development of "social-emotional skills" and increasing the number of student and family engagement specialists.
• Other academic services for students such as "diagnostic progress monitoring" that can track student progress.
"When any body of government releases money and then gives you a very, very tight approval timeline and deadlines on when to expend it, that's usually not a best practice," district Superintendent Don Austin said. "But it's a common practice with the way the state allocates money. And in this case, we have the added step of a two-meeting rule, which some districts don't have, which means we have to have it prepared even earlier. So the work that went into this is outstanding."
In other business, the district announced, after a closed session meeting, settlement agreements on two separate cases regarding special education students. The district agreed to settle one case for $112,000 and another case for $92,315. Student names were withheld to protect confidentiality of pupil records.
The board also agreed to ratify a settlement agreement in a case that was listed under "student discipline or other confidential student matters" on Tuesday's agenda. No further details were provided during the meeting.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.