By Beth Howard-Brown, Ed.D. and Tara Zuber - March 16, 2022
What can schools do with millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding?
Turns out they can do lots of things that will help children, but school and district leaders need to be aware of the time constraints. Funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) are plentiful, but they come with tight timelines (not to mention the different timelines for ESSER I, ESSER II, and the American Rescue Plan ESSER). To make the best use of these and other existing funding sources, school and district leaders need a different approach beyond straightforward, simple use. They needed to braid and blend their ESSER funds with existing grants and other funding streams to maximize possibilities and potentially improve sustainability.
- Braiding funds happens when districts coordinate funds from different sources for one purpose. Each fund maintains its own identity and reporting requirements.
- Blending combines funds into a single pot that has its own reporting requirements. The identity of all the funds going into the single pot is lost. Blending offers more flexibility, but given constraints around funding, braiding is often easier to do.
Learning to braid and blend funds is a skill that every school and district leader can improve upon. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recognizes that if districts in Illinois are going to make the most of their federal funding, they need assistance learning to braid and blend. ISBE and the Region 9 Comprehensive Center joined together to establish a community of practice (CoP) that brought together principals, superintendents, business managers, and other district leaders for four sessions during the fall and winter of 2021/22. These sessions focused on helping leaders
- increase their knowledge and understanding of braiding and blending of federal and local funds,
- identify ways to mitigate common challenges that may arise when braiding and blending funds, and
- identify tools and resources that can support the successful implementation of braiding and blending funds.
Luke Corry, ISBE senior policy analyst, captured the essence of the CoP in three words: “The CoP provided an opportunity for district leaders to learn, collaborate, and better understand effective approaches to braiding and blending.”
Learning how to braid and blend
Effective braiding and blending begins with a comprehensive needs assessment. In Illinois, school districts conduct needs assessments to inform their consolidated district plans, so CoP participants began with a needs assessment. An advantage of the Consolidated District Plan process: It allows districts to answer one set of questions to meet the planning requirements for federal grants. This enables districts to collaborate across student support offices (e.g., English Learners, special education, Title funds) and to engage relevant groups of stakeholders on the use of federal funds. Stakeholders discuss the multiple federal funding sources and how to coordinate with local and state funds for student needs.
Having established the importance of a comprehensive needs assessment, the CoP participants dove deep into braiding and blending. District leaders learned that the students most likely to experience academic slide due to COVID-19 school closures are those who are eligible for services under multiple programs funded by federal Title and IDEA (Individuals with Disability Education Act) funds and state funds set aside for vulnerable populations. Braiding and blending these and other funding streams leverages multiple resources more effectively toward a common goal. CoP participants used their needs assessments to identify vulnerable populations in their schools. They then started discussing which funding streams they could braid and blend to support those children in need.
In this archived webinar, WestEd experts defined and provided parameters for allowable uses of blending and braiding strategies for multiple federal, state, and local funding streams to support programs or initiatives to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. They also highlight key opportunities for blending and braiding ESSER funding to support students and close gaps created by COVID-19 school closures.
- Needs Assessment Development Modules
This tool provides states and districts with materials to conduct their own series of meetings to develop a needs-assessment process. The tool includes a draft facilitator’s guide, slide presentation, and handouts that may be customized based on the state or district context.
- Colorado Comprehensive Needs Assessment
This resource serves as another guide for districts and schools to use to complete a needs assesment process. The guide defines the process, then moves into the planning for the needs assessment, followed by the decision-making process once that assessment has been completed. Appendices include a checklist for the process, federal legislative summaries, and consolidated application needs assessment requirements.
Collaborating through a community of practice
During their CoP participation, district leaders interacted with their peers in small group discussions. District leaders shared their successes and challenges in improving student outcomes through braiding and blending funds. ISBE and Region 9 facilitators helped participants connect braiding and blending resources with their district efforts. Staff from the Edunomics Lab also facilitated discussions related to districts spending their COVID relief funds and communicating with school community stakeholders on the connection between investments and students. District leaders talked about their goals for their identified student groups based on their comprehensive needs assessment findings. Small group discussions focused on district- and school- level programs built to address student learning loss, ranging from reading programs to exceptional service supports for children. Districts across the nation are talking about how they use ESSER funds to keep the focus on student needs. The Edunomics Lab recently shared six ways district leaders can communicate about and help make the most of their ESSER funds.
Understanding the ongoing power of braiding and blending funding
Braiding and blending is a powerful catalyst for funding programs that benefit students. ISBE saw a need to keep supporting participating districts by providing ongoing support in braiding and blending funding to the five districts in the CoP and to incorporate this into how districts allocate funding. ISBE realizes that districts will use these processes when given the guidance and support to do so effectively, through learning, collaborating, and truly understanding braiding and blending.
During the summer of 2021, ISBE released a webinar for district- and school-level administrators, “Leveraging Resources: Blending and Braiding Funds,” to help districts maximize the additional recovery funds they received. The webinar helped district administrative teams plan holistically; develop cohesive programs and services; and ensure sustainability through blending and braiding of federal, state, and local funds.
During their last CoP session, districts heard from ISBE staff about braiding and blending reporting requirements. Edunomics Lab also provided districts access to an interactive Tableau scatterplot for Illinois. Districts can use this tool to explore spending and outcomes at schools with similar characteristics, and they can use the filters to look by county, level, economic disadvantage, and other factors.
After further conversations with districts, ISBE convened a cross-departmental team of staff to support districts as they apply concepts from the CoP to their 2023 federal grant application cycle. The following resources also are intended to support district efforts, along with a Braiding and Blending Best Practices Guide developed by the Region 9 team.
- Unlocking State and Federal Program Funds to Support Student Success
This lengthy document provides multiple examples of how to braid and blend funds for different program types. The types of programs covered include Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, professional learning, parent and family engagement, and a positive school climate. Each example details the funds that could be braided, with examples of how they could be used. The document also details federal and state programs, plus their potential uses and requirements.
- Blended and Braided Funding: A Guide for Policy Makers and Practitioners
This 2014 guide provides useful information regarding braiding and blending. Chapter 1 provides an overview of braiding and blending and describes the threats to effective use of funding: fragmentation, overlap, and duplication. Chapter 3, which focuses on education, primarily discusses the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act).
- Braiding Funds to Enhance Title IV-A Program Efficiency and Outcomes
Although this brief document mentions blending, it focuses on how to braid funds. The document provides key questions to ask when braiding funds and a visual tool for remembering them. Also included is a five-step approach: (1) conduct a comprehensive needs assessment, (2) create a consolidated plan with stakeholders and representatives from each program, (3) decide which funding programs can help address each aspect of the consolidated plan, (4) develop a budget to reflect braided funding, and (5) monitor performance/improvements and effectiveness of resources.
The use of braiding and blending provides increased access to programs to address learning loss during this time of COVID-19. Additionally, the partnerships between programs to share resources and coordinate services also can expand children’s access. And over time, this will help keep initiatives sustainable when these additional resources are gone.
Beth Howard-Brown leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center's Braiding and Blending CoP with Illinois State Board of Education and is a principal technical assistance consultant American Institutes for Research. Howard-Brown is a certified school superintendent, principal and school counselor, has more than 25 years of experience supporting students, educators, and school improvement in K-12 and higher education.
Tara Zuber is a researcher with the American Institutes for Research and assists with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center. Zuber has spent the last decade dedicated to supporting states and districts and analyzing initiatives.