Positive Impact Evident Through ESSER Funds

Positive Impact on School Day Evident Through ESSER Funded Improvements
Posted on 08/17/2023
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Students and staff are seeing the positive impact of changes and updates to Weakley County Schools’ campuses this year that were funded through the ESSER program.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund [ESSER] Program was introduced as a part of the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act in 2021, each state received federal funding in response to pandemic and reopening schools safely. The funds must be used to address learning loss, improve in-person teaching and learning, support socio-emotional and mental health needs, repair and improve facilities, and for the implementation and enhancement of educational technology. 

Weakley County Schools Grants Director Angie Rushing oversees ESSER for the district. She explained that administrators, faculty, and staff came together to decide the best use for ESSER funds at each school.

“We were intentional and strategic about using these funds to address socio-emotional and mental health needs of students, help improve student proficiency, strengthen teacher-student connections, close learning loss gaps, and boost opportunities for learning acceleration. Each of our ten schools is unique and has very different needs that are specific to each school’s campus. Our administrators, faculty, and staff have helped guide the decision-making process for how to best use the funds to teach and learn in a safer and cleaner environment,” said Rushing.

Over the course of the grant planning, Rushing met regularly with administrative staff, teachers, students, and members of the community to organize, prepare, and calculate expenditures within the grant budget. The county received $8,694,049 during the three-year span of the grant.

Rushing continued, “As we’ve reopened and sustained operations since the 2020 shutdown, we’ve strived to create safer and more accessible schools. Many of our schools removed counters or modified furnishings in front office areas to create more open spacing. It is important for visitors to have the ability to maintain social distancing protocols when necessary in our buildings. With the renovations we’ve implemented, that goal can be achieved.”

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, data demonstrated a concerning trend in increasing student social, emotional, and mental health needs. Those needs intensified once the pandemic began. With students needs as the priority, three additional student support professionals [SSPs] were hired to help with the growing number of referrals for services. An SSP can provide support services to students, develop prevention and intervention strategies for students and families, and connect students with social and community-based health services.

Brittany Jaco, MSSW, has worked as a Social Worker for the district for 15 years. She says that there is a vital need for mental health services in schools.

“The surge in mental health related issues continues to trend upward in our schools, region, state, and across the nation. Studies show that students are still experiencing feelings of stress, grief, loss, fear, isolation, anxiety, and sadness as a result of the pandemic. Our Student Support Professionals, in tandem with the rest of our mental health team, are helping students manage their feelings and connecting them with needed resources. The importance of supporting a student’s mental health cannot be overstated,” Jaco said. 

Initiatives to combat learning loss are showing successful outcomes. Now in its third year, the After School Scholars program employs over 100 tutors district-wide for an extra three hours each week beyond the school day to help with student ELA and Math proficiency. The program also provides additional later afternoon bus transportation for the students. The district also added Tutor.com, which is a free, online resource where students can get 24/7 academic support that includes help with homework, writing papers, understanding assignments, and more.

The funds have also brought about visible changes in the schools.

New awnings are keeping students, staff, and faculty out of the weather at several schools. Students are in the shade or out of the rain at Gleason, Greenfield, Martin Primary, Martin Elementary, Martin Middle, and Sharon School thanks to new awning upgrades. The covered areas keep students and staff out of the weather on the path up to the school, during car pickup, or while waiting for buses to arrive.

Playgrounds and play area equipment updates have students excited to go outside and play. For the first time, Sharon School will have a playground surface area that’s conducive to accessibility for all students. Improvements include repaired fencing and borders around playground areas, specialized turf, new accessible play equipment, and other needed repairs to areas. Dresden Elementary, Gleason, Greenfield, Martin Primary, and Sharon School all saw enhancements to their playground areas.

Lightweight desks and chairs, variable-height tables, and other equipment have created flexible classrooms and learning spaces throughout the district. These reimagined spaces support interaction, collaboration, and engaged learning. Easier to space out and move, the desks were also selected with consideration to ADA accessibility.

With the focus of creating a more conducive learning environment, Dresden Elementary and Dresden Middle received updates to their front office area including fresh paint, new flooring, and furniture that supports accessibility and safety. Westview High and Gleason School’s office space has been re-envisioned to create a more organized and spacious area for staff and visitors.

Students are enjoying new cafeteria seating and dining tables at several schools. The ADA accessible furniture includes ADA accessible stationary attached seats, booths, stools, and chairs that are easier to space out and sanitize. Dresden High, Greenfield, Westview High, Martin Middle, and Sharon School were all recipients of new cafeteria tables. Martin Primary will also have new seating soon.

Teacher work areas in every school have received an upgrade. Modified furnishings have replaced old and broken furniture, helping to decongest and enlarge teacher workspaces. The addition of worktables, counters, seating, and other equipment in general workspaces has provided a flexible space for teachers to collaborate, plan, and prepare.

A variety of other school improvements are in place or underway. Restroom facilities, stalls, and countertops in several schools received enhancements. New entry rugs with school logos are easier to clean, welcome students, and promote school spirit and a sense of community. Martin Middle has new student tables for their outdoor classroom. Changes to open up the spaces at Gleason School’s locker room and School Resource Office are in the works. The theater room at Westview High received updates to the sound system in order to best communicate with staff and students in a more spacious area.

Students and faculty have positive things to say about the changes.

“The covered awning has made a big difference in the morning, especially on rainy days,” said Greenfield 7th grader Carlee Lane.

Dresden Elementary 1st grader Hannah Moore said, “The new playground equipment is the coolest thing ever. Everyone in my class loves to slide down the new slide.”

“The renovated teacher workspace has been valuable,” Martin Elementary Teacher Mercy Ford acknowledged. “It’s perfect for collaborating with other teachers, planning, and strategizing.”

Dresden High Teacher Danielle Garner commented, “We love the new desks. They are lightweight, so we can easily rearrange them to customize the classroom based on the material the students are learning. It’s a gamechanger to have that kind of flexibility in the space.”

Distributed over the course of 3 years, ESSER relief requires a very lengthy planning process that is custom to each school district. The grant, like any other federal grant, is closely monitored and very specific in rules, oversight, allowable and prohibited purchases, and required documentation that is open to the public for review. Each item listed is approved prior to purchase by a grant oversight committee at the state level.

Assistant Director of Schools Betsi Foster sees the positive impacts across the district.

"ESSER funds have allowed us to address longtime and ongoing needs in the district such as student mental health and an after-school busing program to allow bus riders to participate in tutoring. We have already begun to see positive changes in test scores, discipline referrals, and overall student wellbeing. We are thankful for Mrs. Rushing, our staff and school communities who have led these programs, and plans are in place to continue the most effective programs even after grant funds run out,” Foster said.

several students sit smiling at a yellow and purple and white decorative round lunch table themed Sharon Eagles

Greenfield student walks up stairs below the school awning that leads all the way up to the entrance of the school

a young student stand in front of the Gleason playground equipment that is blue yellow and red and stands atop green turf grass

Dresden High students sit at grayish brown shiny desks that are pushed together into a four-desk block

three teachers sit at a large table teacher workspace working together
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