St. Paul Public Schools is receiving $319 million in federal funds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — the largest amount of any district in the state.
One goal to spend it on? Academic recovery. And the emphasis is on reading every day in elementary schools such as Benjamin E. Mays in the Summit-University area.
Teacher Lucinda Steele recently sat with six students, and they moved at a fast pace as they uttered the words.
But she put the brakes on at a pivotal point: “Is reading a race?” She said. “No,” the students exclaimed, deliberately deviating further from the task at hand.
The techniques taught are based on the “science of reading,” and Saint Paul employs 170 teachers who have been trained in the methods by the Minnesota Department of Education. The district also has the luxury of being able to use its federal funds to pay the salaries of 80 teachers and coaches, at $11 million annually.
St. Paul’s handling and COVID relief funding account drew national attention, first from the Metropolitan School Board and then the nonprofit news website 74. That led to a star turn of sorts for principal Joe Gothard and others at a virtual event hosted by the US Department of Education this year.
“There is more money in education than ever before,” US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in the introduction.
St. Paul and other counties must spend or commit their money by the end of September 2024, leaving educators like Stelle at Benjamin E. Mays to wonder, “What happens when the money runs out?”
Great question, certainly, especially with the breadth of targeted initiatives and investments going on in St. Paul.
Here’s a look at some of the ways the region is spending its windfall, which Gothard describes as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
Staff and curriculum
Austin Estes of the Council of Senior Public School Officials said spending on curriculum and education, including reading science interventions, high-dose tutoring and staff retention bonuses were among the best uses of federal COVID relief dollars.
A year ago, St. Paul added retention bonuses of $1,500 per year to contracts with union members forced to move back-and-forth shifts for in-person and distance learning in 2020-21 and 2021-22. The price for licensed employees alone—mostly teachers—was $10 million as of July 2022.
As for the total cost of the rewards, Leah Corey, director of the District Office of Innovation, noted A General dashboard It shows how St. Paul spends its COVID money — itself a subject of praise by some, though it comes with a reporting lag.
Could bonuses be activated again in the 2023-24 negotiations? It’s not decided yet, Corey said.
Keep the buses rolling
Private employees — bus drivers, in particular — also enjoy the support of the district.
Last year, St. Paul ran $581,778 in COVID funds for the bus and truck contractors that handle the bulk of student transportation. Ben Harry, the district transportation director, said last week that one company used the money to fund a $3,000 bonus while another raised its base wage by $1.50 an hour.
However, there are still problems associated with a shortage of bus drivers. Harry said many high school students will still be riding Metro Transit buses in 2023-24.
But the number of routes covered by the yellow buses has increased from 175 to 200, service has returned to LEAP High School and buses are being provided for an after-hours middle school program called Flipside.
Strengthening personal bonds
Middle school can be a stressful time for kids. To help them feel at home and keep up with studies, the district has used COVID funds to expand the Flipside after-school program from six to 15 schools in 2021-22. More than three-quarters of the students surveyed reported making new friends, feeling supported by adults and more in tune with career choices.
Corey said Flipside’s price was $512,268 in 2021-22, and it’s expected to double this year.
To meet the district’s goal of appointing a counselor to every school, St. Paul is tapping $1.2 million annually in federal funds for nine counselors, Corey said, in addition to using $1.4 million annually to pay nine social workers.
Employees also take care of their own mental health and wellness needs with over $200,000 funded professional learning opportunities.
Recruitment and retention of teachers
To build a more diverse faculty, the district has invested $3.4 million annually in federal funds to create a 14-member recruitment and retention team. It reported that a greater percentage of people of color would be employed in 2022 than in 2021.
Earlier this year, district staff traveled to four historically black colleges and universities in Tennessee as part of a new effort to boost recruiting. Currie described the trip as the first step of a long-term pipeline, adding that the team met with more than 75 college students either in person or virtually.
Hopes and questions for the future
Returning to Benjamin E. Mays, Stelle is excited about County’s approach to lifting struggling readers up to grade level. At the district level, preliminary data showed that students who participated in the small group sessions outperformed the gains of those who did not participate, said Stacy Gray Akiya, chief executive of equity, strategy and innovation.
“We want to keep going,” she said. “Maybe double.”
But Corey said it remains to be seen what the effort will look like in 2023-24 and, more importantly, when millions in relief funds from pandemics have dried up.