Student Success Act winds its way into school operations
Seth Lewelling Elementary School second grade teacher Evelyn Rhodes works one on one with Connor Webb last month. School districts are using Student Investment Account money to hire more teachers and staff, giving crucial support as students deal with the pandemic’s disruptions. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Teacher Alexis Moore doesn’t know all the ways the Student Success Act is helping her school. She just knows that having 23 students this year is a lot more manageable than the 35 or more she is used to.
“For me, it means being able to attend to the needs of each child feels doable,” Moore said.
The 2019 act aims to create roughly $1 billion a year for K-12 education, with half going to school districts in direct grants through the Student Investment Account. Schools started spending in 2020, but the money is really starting to make tangible changes this academic year.
At Seth Lewelling Elementary School in Milwaukie, where Moore teaches a blended fourth and fifth grade class, it means two more teachers and reduced class sizes across the school.
Lewelling instructional coach Nadia Boria said the smaller classes have been crucial for stressed-out teachers working with students who are academically behind and struggling socially. She said the school’s past class sizes probably would have put teachers “over the edge.”
The landmark act relies on a tax on business activities to pay the bills. The SIA will distribute $892 million this biennium. The money is intended to be additional funds on top of the State School Fund, a sometimes-blurred distinction. Districts are using the money to maintain programs and staff that might have been cut with lower enrollments and the current State School Fund. But districts are also using the money to respond to COVID-19-related problems undreamed of when the law passed and to add long-desired staff and programs.
After extensive public engagement, schools submitted to the Oregon Department of Education three-year plans in 2020 that quickly had to be modified when the pandemic struck and drastically reduced the first year’s payments. Districts are working now to create four-year plans to present in 2022, which they will do every two years going forward.
ODE is consolidating reporting and community engagement requirements to ease districts’ burden. District administrators say the SIA quarterly and annual reports are onerous but ODE has been extremely helpful. And unlike with many reporting requirements, there is a big payoff.
Of the 210 school districts and charter schools eligible for the SIA, only three decided it wasn’t worth the effort in the first year, according to Rachael Moser, ODE director of systems capacity and improvement. This year all applied.
Moser said popular uses include staffing to support mental and behavioral health, to reduce class sizes and to increase specialized classes, such as for career and technical education.
Beyond the money, Moser said, schools are benefiting from the collaborations and community engagement the act has spawned.
“We definitely have heard that parents and families have felt engaged for the first time,” she said.
McKenzie School District Superintendent Lane Tompkins said ODE requested the district do more community engagement, especially with underrepresented groups. Reducing academic disparities for historically underserved groups is one of the act’s main tenets.
McKenzie added a family advocate because of public input, and Tompkins called the process worthwhile and even “fun.”
“It is rare in our area to have a meeting to say: ‘There is several hundred thousand dollars. What do we want to do with it?’” Tompkins said.
McKenzie will receive $505,000 this biennium, about $634 additional dollars per ADMw, the weighted student enrollment calculation for school funds.
Besides the family liaison, the district contracted for a full-time mental health care provider and increased capacity for data-informed work.
Like other districts, McKenzie couldn’t fill all the positions it wanted because of the tight school and health care workforce market, but it did pay teachers for extra time so they could teach elective courses.
In Harney County, school districts are using the money to potentially address future workforce shortages.
Seven Harney County school districts qualified for the $63,000 minimum for the biennium. The SIA is based on enrollment, but schools with less than 50 ADMw are counted for at least that much so they can still do something significant.
Harney Education Service District Superintendent Shannon Criss said the districts didn’t initially want the money because they didn’t think it was worth the reporting effort. Oregon, however, allows school districts to form consortiums to pool their money.
The Harney consortium used much of the money to hire a person to help the county’s students explore local career opportunities. Criss said the SIA is helping meet a community desire districts couldn’t have addressed on their own.
For large districts, it’s a different calculation.
The North Clackamas School District will get $25.7 million over two years. It has hired or maintained almost 90 full-time positions using SIA funds, including 35 teachers, according to Joel Stuart, the district’s lead administrator for the act.
“The significance is difficult to quantify, but that’s a lot of people supporting children and families,” Stuart said.
In addition to hiring nurses, counselors, social workers, early learning professionals and specialist support staff, the district has tried to strengthen equity. The district hired three culturally specific community outreach facilitators, an African American, a Native American and a Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The district contracted with REAP, a multicultural youth leadership program, for two staff members four days a week, and the district hired bilingual technical support staff.
Lewelling provides an SIA microcosm, Stuart said.
North Clackamas tries to staff its schools at a 26-1 student-to-teacher ratio, which pencils out to 10 teachers for Lewelling. Because Lewelling is a high-poverty school, it gets two more through SIA support.
The district hired three additional nurses, leading to much-needed extra medical support for Lewelling. The SIA also supports a counselor on campus from LifeStance, a mental and behavioral health provider.
The SIA pays for a health and wellness teacher to see every class once a week. That has been especially beneficial this year, said Lewelling’s Boria, who is also the health and wellness teacher. She has been able to support children’s social and emotional health and give teachers a small break during the day.
Boria said the SIA money is helping students in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen when the act passed. In addition to the health curriculum, she is teaching students how to get along in groups after the isolation of COVID-19.
Boria is especially excited about the SIA paying for hundreds of books for Lewelling classroom libraries to offer more diverse and reading-level appropriate choices.
“We’ve been saying for years that we need to invest in classroom libraries, and now we get to do it,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA