Here's how Waxahachie ISD is spending federal dollars to close the learning gap

Chris Roark
Waxahachie Daily Light
Waxahachie ISD is using federal money to bring students back to where they were academically before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many school districts Waxahachie ISD knows it has some work to do to bring students back to where they were academically before the COVID-19 pandemic.

So the district is putting its federal funding to use.

This past summer WISD received $8.9 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) III funding, which was made possible by the American Rescue Plan and then sent to states to be distributed to local school districts.

The money was to go toward evidence-based practices for learning accelerations, summer enrichment and after school programming to help students who experienced learning loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lisa Mott, assistant superintendent of elementary learning, said it was evidenced from last spring’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests and end-of-course (EOC) exams that WISD students were not immune to academic regression.

“Results from the STAAR test were not at the level we saw pre-pandemic,” Mott said, adding that math scores took the biggest drop.

But she said the learning gap isn’t as wide as it could have been, and she credits the fact that so many students – more than 95 percent – returned to in-person instruction last year.

“We worked diligently last year though great instructional practice, small group learning and all sorts of fabulous things going on in our classrooms,” Mott said. “And I think we made significant progress in closing that COVID gap.”

Still, there is work to do, and the ESSER funding will help, Mott said.

Curriculum and instruction

WISD is spending $4.2 million on curriculum and instruction to close the learning gap.

Mott said the ESSER funding is being used for new material to support the district’s curriculum, such as hands-on science kits and literacy footprints as an intervention tool.

“We have a social studies resource that we’re bringing in,” Mott said. “Social studies was probably an area that, as we were focusing on math and reading, might not have gotten all of the attention that it needed.”

Lisa Mott

Mott said the district purchased a computer program called “IXL” that will provide online tutoring support to supplement the required hours.

Mott said in many cases the efforts are simply an extension of what the district is already doing. She said some of the resources to support the curriculum, such STEM Scopes, a hands-on science resource, will be purchased for second- and third-graders, whereas it has already been used for fourth- and fifth-graders.

She said the Literacy Footprints program has already been in use, but the ESSER funds will allow the district to make it more robust.

“So we’re going to take advantage of the funding to provide those extra resources,” Mott said.

Technology

WISD is using $2.5 million of its funding on technology, specifically for its 1:1 device program. Mott said the goal is to have a device for every student in the classroom, as well as for every student who needs it away from campus. She said the pandemic forcing remote learning in 2019-20 shined a light on the need for more devices.

“We were not anywhere near 1:1 when the shutdown happened in March of 2020,” Mott said. “We’ve been working really hard since then to get to a better ratio for our students.”

She said the ESSER funds have helped WISD get near its 1:1 goal.

“We want to make sure that if we ever have to pivot again to an online required, everybody home situation, that we have those devices and they’re ready to be handed out,” Mott said. “That’s one thing the pandemic has brought to light is the need to pivot very quickly.”

Mott said the kindergartners and first-graders primarily use iPads while the other students mainly use Chromebooks.

Mott said WISD is also using separate grant money to help with its 1:1 initiative.

She said one of the main goals is ensuring the 1:1 program is fully ready by the spring since STAAR and EOC assessments are taken online.

Teacher retention/stipends

WISD is spending $1.6 million of its ESSER funds on teacher retention pay and stipends. Mott said teachers are getting $3,000 to $5,000 for stipends per year.

That money also goes toward tutors, which Mott said is key in getting students caught up.

Per House Bill 4545, students who did not pass the STAAR test or an EOC exam in any subject last year are required to receive 30 hours of tutoring for that subject.

“We’ll be using our ESSER funds to pay our own teachers stipends as well as bringing in tutors from outside of our staff to tutor kids to get to those 30 hours,” Mott said. “So it will tutor them to catch them up but also to get them prepared for STAAR testing this coming year.”

Mental health

Mott said $600,000 in ESSER funds will be used to address mental health of students.

“That is a real concern for us right now,” Mott said. “We can definitely measure with diagnostic testing the academic learning loss, but the impact of the mental health is not as easy to measure.”

Mott said the district is looking to bring in counseling programs for all grade levels to address mental health.

“We’re very concerned about the kids who have been through this pandemic, concerned about kids who have been home long term,” Mott said. “We did have a small percentage of kids who were home all of last year, and what kind of effect does that have on them socially and how that relates to them academically.”

She said WISD is also looking at different mental health programs that the current counselors can use.

“We’re looking to get that secured very soon,” Mott said.

Evaluation

Mott said while it’s too soon to know how these efforts have helped close the learning gap there will be answers soon.

“We look at where the student was prior, what was their success level on the assessments before COVID,” Mott said. “And then we assess our kids … at the beginning, middle and end of the year so we can see their growth from there. We know our students are behind where we want them to be, and that’s statewide and nationwide. State assessments show that. So now we want to close that gap and get the students back to the same achievement level we were at pre-COVID and then back on track to push them higher.”

Mott said most mid-year assessments will take place in January.

“We want to make sure what we’re doing is working, because if we’re not closing that gap we need to come up with a different plan,” Mott said.

Mott said she feels confident the district is in a good place in terms of closing the gap.

“We had very high goals here in Waxahachie and expectations pre-pandemic,” Mott said. “I see us getting back on track for those and working to meet the goals that we have. We want all of our kids achieving at a very high level. We want to keep pushing our kids at the top levels as well because it’s not enough just to meet the minimum expectation.”