Simpson complains not enough being focused directly on “helping Johnny”
Alamance-Burlington school board members spent the better part of an hour Monday night debating what they felt were the best ways to spend nearly $70 million in federal Covid-19 stimulus relief funding before voting to accept a staff recommendation to use $69.5 million on air quality improvement projects, 74 teaching and academic support positions, and technology expenses such as “digital resources,” internet access, and computers.
School board members voted 6-1, with Patsy Simpson opposed, Monday night to accept the administration’s recommended allotments for the money that ABSS will receive from three federal stimulus packages Congress passed between March 2020 and March of this year.
How to compensate for “learning loss” during Covid
Much of the discussion Monday night stemmed from some school board members’ apparent confusion over whether the federal stimulus funding would be used to hire additional teaching assistants, as Simpson had suggested earlier this month, to help students recover from “learning loss” during the statewide school shutdown that began in March 2020 and ended this March, when most ABSS students returned to school two days a week for in-person instruction.
Instead, ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson recommended using a portion of the federal stimulus funding for 41 intervention specialists and data coaches at the elementary, middle, and high schools to identify and address “learning gaps” for the next two school years, and to fund 33 teaching positions at the new Alamance Virtual School that began its first school year on Monday (see accompanying charts).
School board member Donna Westbrooks also expressed concern Monday night about how much time the people in these positions would spend working with students.
School board vice chairman Tony Rose pointed out toward the end of Monday night’s discussion that the board had voted to approve the new positions – and tentatively approved using federal stimulus money to fund intervention specialists and other positions – during the spring budget cycle. School board members typically consider and vote on a budget request to forward to the county commissioners between January and March of each year.
The board previously voted 5-2, with Simpson and school board member Ryan Bowden opposed, in late February of this year to approve a county budget request, which had also designated millions in federal stimulus funding for 33 “remediation positions” to mitigate learning loss, additional instructional support for high school students, and school nurses and social workers that were also included in this week’s presentation.
ABSS finance officer Jeremy Teetor also presented an overview of the school system’s preliminary plans for spending its share of the federal stimulus relief funding for Covid-19 at a joint meeting between Alamance County’s commissioners and school board members on January 11 of this year.
Just over $14 million in federal stimulus money would be used to provide 20 “MTSS teachers” (who identify and assist struggling students within a “Multi-Tiered System of Support”) at the elementary schools, which Benson described as “a particular challenge for us because they had a sizeable interruption” in their instruction. The MTSS specialists would be “credentialed” teachers, including some currently employed with ABSS, who could be moved into regular teaching positions once the federal stimulus money runs out, the superintendent explained Monday night.
While all 74 positions (MTSS teachers at the elementary schools; and intervention specialists and data coaches at middle and high schools) are “tied to instruction in several ways,” only the MTSS teachers might work directly with students, according to ABSS chief accountability officer Amy Richardson.
Positions such as the data coaches, would not work directly with students, Richardson told school board members Monday night. Instead, they would be responsible for identifying students’ “learning gaps” and creating a “cohesive school improvement model” that focuses on making sure that students attend all of their classes, get “involved with the school culture,” and graduate on time, she said. They would also work with “our Professional Learning Communities,” or what she described as a “group of teachers” who teach similar content and/or grade levels.
Richardson acknowledged that the intervention specialists and data coaches are similar to the academic coaches that ABSS eliminated two years ago. School board members ultimately voted that year to retain 12 “regional coaches,” but eliminated the better part of 33 academic coaching positions to save money.
“These positions serve as supplemental support,” Richardson told school board members this week, while the academic coaching role “was a little bit more holistic.”
Horse of another color?
Simpson almost immediately keyed on the fact that the latest positions that will be funded by the federal stimulus money appear to be little more than a horse of another color.
“I haven’t seen too much to say we are making a difference academically.”– School board member Patsy Simpson
“One of the things I’ve had a problem with is we go from one thing to another,” Simpson said Monday night. “I haven’t seen too much to say we are making a difference academically.”
“We need people who can sit next to little Johnny and help him.”– School board member Patsy Simpson
She said she had recently discussed feedback she’s heard about needs within ABSS schools with the superintendent and urged him to set aside part of the funding for positions that work directly with students. “I said,” Simpson recalled Monday night, “we don’t need to have these positions [that involve] sitting around the table gathering data – we need people who can sit next to little Johnny and help him.”
Simpson also recalled this week that shortly after he took over as superintendent, Benson reorganized the departments at central office to make sure “they were working with students more” than they had been. “We are gathering data, sitting around the table talking about little Johnny, but not working with him. We keep changing titles and positions but we are not working with little Johnny. We’ve got to recognize we’ve got a problem…I’m just a little frustrated. We go from this to that [but] the outcomes are not changing. I keep seeing a bunch of chiefs and there are no Indians to help.”
Simpson also criticized using licensed teachers to analyze student outcomes and needs. “I really think we need to revisit our approach. We need to go back to some basics, to the old days of teachers realizing that class sizes are important. You’re not giving them any direct help to assist them in the teaching and learning process.”
While Simpson said she would prefer to have even a “year or two of direct intervention and instruction” – with the knowledge that the funding will eventually dry up – Benson countered that school principals had identified these positions as the support they need and “they support what we’re doing.”
ABSS deputy superintendent Dr. Angela Bost said Monday night that principals have seen that MTSS teachers have worked successfully in other schools and have said they want to implement the system in all schools. The intervention specialists at the middle and high schools would work directly with students, she said, and high schools would have “an intervention time built in to advise and work with students directly.”
“Where can we have that data to show that this MTSS is working at the school level?” Simpson asked. “We are going to see some improvement in our test scores? The principals made the decision that this is what they need, and you said there’s data to support. When these positions are posted and announced, it’s said they do 70 percent paperwork and 30 percent intervention.
“I’m not trying to beat up on your staff,” Simpson continued. “I just haven’t received a response yet to say that having TAs in the classroom was not the right approach. All I know is we go from one thing to the other. We go more to analyzing and analyzing data. It’s not just ABSS; it’s throughout the country. We all know that going back to basics works. All you’re doing is giving the teacher a lot more work to do with analyzing – I just don’t think that’s what we need right now…This is a special pot of money; this money is to help and assist with the deficiencies with the lack of learning while [students] were at home. That’s the way it needs to be utilized, with the understanding that it may go away.”
While Simpson pressed her fellow board members to amend the funding allocations to include money for additional TAs, her suggestion got little traction, though Bowden said he supports “looking at the teaching assistants” and continuing the discussion. School board member Sandy Ellington-Graves said she thought some of the positions had already been filled after the board approved a preliminary spending plan for the federal stimulus funds earlier this year.
Most of the positions are filled, though seven instructional support positions and 16 positions at the new virtual school may remain vacant, depending upon the final enrollment, Teetor confirmed for the newspaper Monday afternoon.
Rose subsequently introduced a motion to accept the “staff recommendation,” which passed 6-1 with Simpson opposed.
$500K earmarked for “community partners”
ABSS will also set aside $500,000 in federal stimulus funding for “community partnerships” that can provide assistance with kindergarten readiness, mentoring, and tutoring. Asked by Simpson who those “community partners are,” Benson said, “as we move forward we would put that in.”
ABSS will develop an application so organizations “that wish to receive some of these funds,” as school board chairman Allison Gant put it Monday night, have a way to do so.
See related stories from August 23 school board meeting:
$37.5 million to be spent on air quality at 16 schools: https://alamancenews.com/37-5m-to-be-spent-on-air-quality-projects-at-16-schools/
Retroactive “retention” bonuses given for Adapted Curriculum teachers: https://alamancenews.com/school-board-unanimously-approves-retroactive-5000-retention-bonuses/
Pay boosted (again) for substitute teachers: https://alamancenews.com/school-board-votes-to-raise-pay-for-subs-even-more/