The Perfect Enemy | How federal covid aid trickled down to Xavier’s classroom
September 25, 2022

How federal covid aid trickled down to Xavier’s classroom

How federal covid aid trickled down to Xavier’s classroom  The Washington Post

Read Time:15 Minute

In September 2021, Milton Laurence called every sophomore at Dunbar High School into his small office, one-by-one, and asked them to read a passage about a monument dedicated to Hiroshima. With a half-million dollars in federal pandemic relief aid, the assistant principal of the Northwest Washington school hoped to find promising students who fell behind — and then figure out how to spend that money in a way that would catch them up.

In stepped Xavier Byrd, a quiet 15-year-old with an unremarkable record: average GPA, no behavior issues while at the school, attendance of less than 70 percent. He’d spent his freshman year online, camera off, sleeping through most of his classes, failing to turn in most of his assignments.

“There’s not much motivation in virtual learning,” Xavier recalled. “My handwriting got worse, I forgot how to do algebra.”

This was his first semester of in-person high school. He had never physically met anyone at Dunbar before.

No one at Dunbar knew that the teenager dreamed of being an aerospace engineer or that he spent his pandemic days tinkering with old machines at home and building contraptions in his backyard. And they certainly didn’t know that he was beginning to question whether he even had the work ethic to pull off his dream.

Laurence asked Xavier to read passages, observed what happened when he stumbled on a word he didn’t know, and then had the teen quickly write about the piece and talk about it. The assistant principal determined that Xavier had extraordinary critical-thinking abilities but struggled with some writing fundamentals.

In a typical year, students like Xavier wouldn’t receive a lot of extra attention outside of class. He wasn’t failing, he wasn’t asking for help, and he didn’t have any outbursts in class. Dunbar, a school where 70 percent of the students come from families that receive public assistance and more than 20 percent receive special education services, already had systems in place aimed at preventing the students with the highest needs from dropping out.

But now Laurence had money to help more students, and he decided that kids like Xavier — seemingly average students who slipped during the pandemic and wanted to improve — would benefit.

“Here is a student that is capable, but lacks confidence and assertiveness, but is able to do the work,” Laurence said. “There are students that have ability but are flying under the radar because they aren’t getting the supports that the highest need students get.”

So it was decided: Xavier would stay after school twice a week and show up on Saturday mornings. The school would pay for an online tutoring program that would help him hone his writing skills for 45 minutes three times a week, and a teacher would be paid overtime to staff an after school and weekend robotics club he would participate in.

Xavier was one of 50 sophomores enrolled in an experiment, one of many across D.C., to see whether Dunbar could rebuild the school community that was lost during the pandemic while also getting students caught up on academics.

Freshman and sophomore years are critical, and Xavier had lost his first year of high school to the pandemic. These were the years when school staff could convince middling students who never thought much about life after high school that they could go to college and have careers. Or, these were the years that students who were already lagging could fall even further behind, succumbing to the pressures of adolescence, derailing opportunities for a career or a college path.

For them, this year could determine the shape of their entire lives. Administrators called them the “bubble students.”

In 10th grade, they can either burst or soar.

The spending challenges

The rules governing how educators can spend their portions of the $200 billion in education federal relief money are vague and broad. School districts need to spend at least 20 percent of their money to help students catch up on academics, but the rest can go toward infrastructure projects, extra school nurses or masks for students to wear in classrooms. They have until the 2024-2025 academic year to spend it.

And school districts took big liberties. They revamped sports fields, purchased cleaning supplies, hired extra staff and enrolled their teachers in professional development programs. School districts with crumbling infrastructure were finally able to patch up some of their buildings.

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The Covid Money Trail
It was the largest burst of emergency spending in U.S. history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.

In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash.

Read more

But there’s been little oversight across the country, and it’s unclear whether this unprecedented windfall actually helped students learn.

The nation’s capital, a city with about 90,000 students, most of whom are from low-income families, received more than $600 million over three rounds of congressional funding disbursements. That was mostly split between the District’s large charter sector and the traditional public school system. It was a potential boon to an already well-funded school district that spent about $2 billion from the city budget on public education last year.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee received more than $300 million for the 50,000 students in the traditional public school system. It was on him to figure out how to spend it. He had data showing just how hard the pandemic had been on the students. Literacy scores for the city’s youngest students showed a widening gap between White students and Black and Hispanic children. Older students were disengaged from school, teachers reported.

Ferebee set aside $70 million in the first year for coronavirus mitigation expenses such as masks, extra air filtration machines and new HVAC units. An additional $2.5 million went to expand summer school. Dunbar funded a two-week program to get sophomores acclimated to high school before the first semester started. Xavier’s academic record wouldn’t qualify him for free summer school in a typical year, but he attended that program at Dunbar, his first time in a school building since middle school.

Ferebee also sent $26 million to the principals of the school system’s 116 campuses, giving them latitude on how to spend the money for the 2021-2022 academic year. Schools received money based on how many students they had from low-income families. Dunbar received more than $518,000 in federal funding, a 5 percent bump to the school’s annual budget — enough to fund the summer program, couple extra full-time positions or bring in extra tutoring programs.

Ferebee’s multipronged approach began with investing millions to develop teachers so they were better prepared to instruct students who had fallen behind. Then Ferebee hoped to provide individual or small group tutoring to five to 10 percent of all students in the 2021-2022 academic year, with the hope of reaching more the following year. He would depend on principals to identify the students to benefit from these measures and get whatever else they needed. In the end, Ferebee said, 8 percent of students received this “high dosage” tutoring.

“Our strategy was to be flexible and to give principals a tremendous amount of autonomy,” Ferebee said. “We wanted to meet students where they were, whether they needed extra counseling or support in literacy, or whatever the needs are.”

But the District’s spending plan highlighted just how complicated and difficult it was for many of the nation’s school districts to spend the money. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urged them to hire more tutors and mental health support. But with nationwide staffing shortages, there are not enough high-quality tutors or mental health workers to fill classrooms. Same with specialized interventionists or any other school staff.

Ferebee, for example, announced at a news conference last October a plan to hire a permanent substitute teacher and full-time coronavirus logistic coordinator for every school. But by the end of the academic year, just around a third of those positions were filled, according city officials.

The school system expanded existing contracts with reading tutoring organizations and after-school programs. But many workers and volunteers with these programs got stuck for months in the city’s backlogged background check process, derailing expansion plans.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, which has tracked how school districts have spent their federal aid, said enrollment at school districts across the country fluctuated, and officials used the money to plug budget holes so they did not have to lay off teachers. Last academic year, D.C. spent more than $21 million of its federal funds to plug those holes. Roza argued that using the money to keep existing staff isn’t necessarily a bad use of funds — it ultimately means more teachers in classrooms — but it doesn’t provide extra resources to help students catch up.

To students and staff, Dunbar didn’t seem flush with new staff and programming this academic year, according to interviews with staff.

Some of that was by design, Principal Nadine Smith said. Instead of contracting tutoring programs and academic specialists, she asked her staff to stay after school and paid them overtime — $40 per hour for employees in the Washington Teachers’ Union. Schools across the country have long relied on principals like Smith to be creative and stretch their resources, often making it feel like they had more than they actually did. Some of Dunbar’s money paid for staff and programs that had been in place before the pandemic.

Smith said her strategy was effective, but it had drawbacks. Xavier’s math teacher, for example, recently had a baby and couldn’t spend much time on campus outside of school hours. But his robotics coach, Anthony Allard, was with Xavier on Saturday mornings and after school, getting Xavier socializing with other students and more excited about coming to school.

Allard had pulled after-school and weekend hours long before the pandemic, so for many staff and students, the work didn’t feel like anything extra. It’s just that this year, Smith said, Allard was getting paid like he should have in past years. The school anticipates receiving these extra funds for the next three school years.

“We really focused on Dunbar teachers doing small-group tutoring across the building. It wasn’t just academic … it was really anything that would bring the kids back in and bond them back to Dunbar,” Smith said.

And she determined that, under supervision and coupled with in-person instruction during standard class time, virtual tutoring could be effective for high-schoolers. So she used some of the pandemic aid to buy subscriptions to math, reading and writing tutoring programs for struggling students.

That’s what Xavier did. And while he still struggled with writing, the virtual writing program helped with grammar conventions and how to structure essays. His English teacher gave him more critical-thinking and creative assignments during class time. He finished the school year reading passages from Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” drawing parallels between the lessons in the book and his own life in short writing assignments.

By the middle of the year, attendance was up at Dunbar, though still lower than pre-pandemic levels. Xavier was in class nearly everyday. He was excited about an upcoming robotics competition. He had a close relationship with his coach.

Still, the extra money couldn’t outrun the pandemic-induced challenges playing out in schools in D.C. and across the country. Teachers reported more behavior disruptions in classrooms. More students were receiving mental health services, but without additional mental health counselors to provide them.

And there simply weren’t enough people to teach students.

Xavier’s first-period engineering class should have been one of his favorites. But in January, the teacher, a longtime educator nearing retirement, quit during the omicron variant surge, and the school couldn’t find a replacement. At least once a week, Allard and another engineering teacher stepped in t0 teach, but they had full course loads themselves. The rest of the time, a substitute teacher supervised them and gave the students busy work.

So Xavier spent much of first period those last months of school passing time until the bell rang.

“I’m just waiting until the class is over,” Xavier said of his engineering class. “Sleeping.”

Immense challenges require a novel plan

The process to match Dunbar students with the right resources wasn’t easy. The most vulnerable students largely received academic interventions during the school day, on the theory that they’d be less likely to turn up for after-school programming. But Laurence believed the “bubble students” might be able to give a little more.

So after assessing all the sophomores with the Hiroshima reading passage, Laurence called their families to see if they would get their children to school on Saturday mornings. Xavier’s parents agreed, and he made it almost every week.

Laurence said he believes his plan worked. Students in the sophomore class didn’t have a single physical fight on campus all semester — a success for any large high school in any year. The majority of the 50 students that he identified as mid-tier met their academic goals, and he said they will receive the same specialized services next academic year.

Xavier admits his reentry into school was hard. He hadn’t sat in a classroom in years. He had attended a language immersion charter school for elementary and middle school, but he kept running into trouble, testing boundaries and talking back to teachers, his father said. The school threatened to expel him, so Xavier’s parents decided to home-school him for the end of much of his eighth grade. Then the pandemic struck, and he started as a Dunbar freshman online. When schools reopened, Xavier, like teens across the country, wasn’t used to sitting in a classroom anymore.

Xavier would show up late at the beginning of the school year as he tried to develop a routine, taking a bus and Metro train to school each morning. A coronavirus exposure and then a covid diagnosis in the fall kept him home for two weeks. And staying awake during the academic day proved hard.

“He already went to Dunbar not motivated,” his father, John Byrd, said of his freshman year. “And then he wasn’t even there, he was just on his keyboard.”

Xavier entered Dunbar without knowing anyone. He talked to friends during the pandemic but didn’t meet anyone new. And coming from a small charter school, the bustle of a large high school was completely new. So he kept his head down when he started sophomore year in person: Stay quiet and out of trouble.

“I missed like two years of in person talking to people, so, I think, mentally and probably I’m still like a freshman, or like an eighth grader, compared to where I could be,” Xavier said. “I probably don’t act as mature as I could, I’m not sure.”

Still, Xavier’s teachers say he has made strides. His attendance and grades are up. He blew opportunities and deadlines in virtual learning, but this summer, he made the deadline to get a summer internship at an engineering firm. Laurence said Xavier completed his online writing program and met the school’s academic goals for his sophomore year. Attendance: Above 90 percent. GPA: A minus.

On an assessment that all D.C. sophomores take at the beginning and end of the academic year, Xavier scored below city averages in the fall. By the end of the academic year, he tested well above the average D.C. sophomore. And while the city experienced its lowest performance on PARCC — a federal standardized exam — in the last five years, Xavier passed.

Xavier’s verdict: “School’s probably better this year than last. It’s just easier to focus.”

Laurence credits robotics with helping Xavier succeed at Dunbar — a club Xavier didn’t even know existed his freshman year. He made a close friend, Rafael, and together the two teens are known around school for their ability to speedily complete Rubik’s cubes.

His father said that connecting with Black male teachers in person has been invaluable, and Xavier has found a mentor in Allard, his coach. After school, Xavier and Rafael rush to robotics club so they could finish building an electric vehicle.

“Xavier has definitely become more confident,” Allard. “He’s a little sarcastic. He is now pointing out what is incorrect [in projects], he’s now taking charge. Leaps and bounds.”

On one of the last weeks of school, Xavier and Rafael are in robotics club, trying to figure out how to connect the vehicle’s base to its engine. They go to the tool closet, grab a drill, and try drilling it together. That doesn’t work, so Xavier suggest just connecting the two pieces with rope. It works.

The teens joke about how Rafael test drove the car through the Dunbar hallways and crashed it. “We need to still fix it,” Xavier says. They talk about the robotics competitions to come their junior year. And they spend some of the afternoon looking out the window at a track meet happening on the school’s field, making teenage quips about the event until Allard told them it was time to go home.

Now that Xavier is a junior, Allard will have a new assignment for him: He’ll be responsible for recruiting new blood for the robotics team — telling his classmates about the club. Talking to them. His teachers think he’s ready to be a leader at Dunbar. A confident teen, destined to be an engineer.