By Kevin Junk- March 22, 2023
“Don’t let that money burn a hole in your pocket!” I remember my dad saying that to me after I got a $100 bill for my birthday one year.
When I heard it, I immediately put my hand on my pocket to feel for any signs of heat. Fortunately, it stayed cool to the touch, and I soon realized that he was actually sharing a really important life lesson with me. He was reminding me to not be too eager to spend my money on just anything. Instead, he wanted to make sure that I was thoughtful about how to spend it. I’d like to say that I took his advice to heart, but as a teenager growing up in southern Illinois, that wasn’t exactly the case. Although it took me several days to build up the courage to spend it, once I broke that crisp $100 bill, the next $20, $40, $60 were gone in a flash. Suddenly, I found myself left with $20, a bunch of empty candy wrappers, and a feeling that I really wanted to make sure I spent this last bit of my birthday money on something that I could enjoy and appreciate for a long time.
On a much larger scale, as a superintendent or principal, you might be experiencing a similar feeling with the Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds that you received in the past 3-plus years. This unprecedented funding was directed to states and districts across the country to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction and address disruptions to teaching and learning resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. District and school leaders have been under a lot of pressure and are trying to make tough decisions within rolling deadlines—ESSER I (September 30, 2022), ESSER II (September 30, 2023), American Rescue Plan ESSER (September 30, 2024)—to obligate these funds or potentially lose them. As you face the last 18 months of these funds being available, you may be asking yourself or your leadership team, “How can we ensure that we’re spending these last remaining funds on the right things for our district or school?” and “How can we set ourselves up to sustain what is working after these funds run out?”
For the past 3 years, Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC) has been working closely with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and district leaders across Illinois on multiple projects related to planning for and using ESSER funds. Through these collaborations, we codeveloped a tool that we believe will be helpful to district and school leaders who are looking to maximize their remaining ESSER funds to support and sustain improvements in teaching, learning, and student wellness for years to come.
A Guide for Supporting School Districts in Braiding and Blending Funds
In 2022, R9CC and ISBE facilitated a project with several district superintendents that led to the development of a timely resource for leaders: Braiding and Blending Federal Funds: A Step-by-Step Guide for Illinois Schools. This guide shares practical steps and examples for leading your district or school through the various stages of decision making to make sure that ESSER funds are appropriated where they are most needed. The heart of this guide is a series of questions and considerations for district and school teams to consider and discuss as you plan to use your remaining ESSER funds.
- What initiative or activity has been identified as a need or priority?
- What local, state, and/or federal funds are eligible to braid for this initiative?
- What, if any, requirements are needed for specific funding streams?
- What are the possible budgeting options for this initiative?
- How will we sustain what is working?
- What are next steps and/or other questions to consider?
Make Sure You Are Monitoring Your Spending and Consider Modifying If Needed
As you get to the bottom of that list of questions, you may be wondering how to monitor your spending and modify your plans as the deadline to use ESSER funds approaches. The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders developed the READI Framework, which can help your district or school define readiness by assessing how well your improvement plan targets the specific needs of underserved schools and students. The Braiding and Blending guide, as mentioned earlier, talks about the importance of monitoring. This guide discusses the importance of making sure that you set benchmarks for monitoring your spending and how monitoring needs to be an ongoing process. In addition, it is important to determine if your spending has resulted in the desired student outcomes. I recommend regular checks-ins rather than waiting for annual or biannual student testing. For example, if you implemented a reading program to close learning gaps resulting from the pandemic, are you collecting data to see if those learning gaps are closing? Are you having conversations with your teachers to understand their comfort level with implementing the program? Do your teachers need more training on implementing the new program? Based on your responses, what do your teachers need to implement this reading program with fidelity? And, do you need to purchase another program to support your reading initiative?
Remember, don’t let those final remaining ESSER funds burn a hole in your district’s pocket. Take your time and be strategic with how you spend your money to make sure that your district is investing in people and programs that will make a positive impact on teaching and learning now and into the future. Use the guide and the questions we shared to engage in reflective discussions and planning as a team. By considering how to effectively braid or blend funding sources now, you will have a clear plan in place to sustain the programs that are having a positive impact in your district once your ESSER funds run out.
Kevin N. Junk is a technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research® (AIR®). His work includes serving as a project lead for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center, as well as leading school improvement work in multiple states. He serves as a leadership coach and an instructional coach for districts across the country and participates in the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle study through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He specializes in school improvement and coaching district and school leaders on how to use data more effectively in their settings. Prior to joining AIR, Junk was a superintendent, building principal, and teacher in southern Illinois.