Minneapolis Public Schools is planning to use nearly all of its “learning loss” funds to pay for teams of intervention staff next year. Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox called the plan “an assertive, almost aggressive move” at the board meeting on March 28. The learning loss funds are part of the American Rescue Plan, earmarked to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic learning. The district was scheduled to begin interviewing internal candidates for these 400 new positions on March 30.
As Minneapolis Schools Voices previously reported, some principals have reservations about the plan. Their concerns include whether the ability of the district to hire for 400 new positions, and the impact the new openings will have on already difficult-to-staff positions in the district.
Minneapolis Schools Voices spoke with a principal at an elementary school in North Minneapolis who is supportive of the investment by the district in the intervention positions. Like many schools in North, the school serves a majority of students of color and low-income students, and a disproportionate share of the students have unstable housing. The principal asked to be unnamed because they are concerned about being punished by the district for speaking to the media.
“Knowing that we have this additional staffing coming in, we can really feel good about saying, ‘yeah, we're meeting kids where they are,’” the principal told us.
Currently, this school has some intervention staff, but not enough to meet the needs of all students assessed as below grade level proficiency in reading and math. The principal estimates that 80% of the students at their school are in need of small group or one-on-one support to reach grade level proficiency in math, reading or both. The principal said some second grade students still need to learn the connections between letters and sounds. These are foundational reading skills typically taught in kindergarten and first grade.
Tiered Systems of Support
Under the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support framework that Minneapolis Public Schools uses, 80% or more of students should be meeting grade level proficiency from core, or Tier 1, classroom instruction.
When a majority of students require extra support, it is an indication that core classroom instruction is not effectively meeting students’ learning needs. Tier 2 support is typically done in small groups, and Tier 3 support is typically one-on-one for students who need the most support to reach grade level proficiency.
The district has not shared how many students qualify for Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions in reading and math. Nor has it shared with the public the results of reading and math assessments disaggregated by school, or grade level at each school. This information would provide some indication of how many students need intervention at each school. We do know the intervention teams are designed to serve about 75 students per team, and there is funding for 134 teams. This indicates around 10,000 of the district's 28,000 students may have access to interventionists next year.
At the March 14 school board meeting, Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox said, “We have an extreme number of students needing Tier 2 interventions, more than is typical in a tiered approach.”
Executive Director Sarah Hunter shared aggregate data on winter reading and math assessments at the March 14 board meeting. That data indicates 47% of the district’s K-8 students are proficient in reading, and 40% are proficient in math. Proficiency rates have declined since winter assessments last school year, and the district has an estimated fifty percentage point difference in proficiency rates between white students and students of color.
At the March 28 school board meeting, the district shared a slide showing that the intervention triads, which are being allocated based on the number of students needing Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions, is strongly correlated with the percentage of students at a school qualifying for free and reduced price meals. Qualifying for educational benefits is often used to approximate poverty.
The North Minneapolis elementary principal we spoke to said their school does not have enough staff to provide any Tier 3 interventions for students and has limited their current intervention teachers to focusing on reading. According to the principal, the decision to focus on reading support was based on a survey of staff and caregivers, asking for their priorities. The additional intervention triad positions will allow the school to begin to provide some one-on-one support next year, and potentially add intervention support in math.
“We don't currently have math interventions in our school,” the principal said. “This is something that we've been really hoping for.”
The district is using one-time funding for the positions next year. To continue the intervention triads, the district would have to use part of its general fund in future years.
“I'm not sure about the sustainability. How long will these positions be around?” the principal added.
Learning loss funds
Federal regulations require the district to set aside 20% of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III funds, one-time federal grants to the district for the COVID pandemic, to cover “learning loss.” Learning loss refers to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on students’ academic learning.
The learning loss funds must “supplement not supplant” district operations. This means the district cannot use the funds for ongoing, existing operations, like salaries, bonuses or other routine costs. Rather, the funds must be spent on something new.
For Minneapolis Public Schools, the learning loss funds total around $31 million. The district has dedicated the other 80% of its ESSERIII funds to closing its budget deficits, and paying for the additional costs of new contracts with district educators.
The district’s most recent plan for the learning loss funds was shared in May 2022. That plan included the following programs:
- Reading Partners contracted services
- Math strategies
- Early literacy professional development including LETRS, Groves, and PRESS
- Site-based reading teachers at every middle school
- Multi-Tiered Systems of Support or Tiered Intervention Data Warehouse
- Americorps tutors and graduation coaches in Office of Black Student Achievement, Indian Ed, and Check & Connect
- Homeless/highly-mobile summer program access support and literacy project
Minneapolis Schools Voices asked the district to clarify what will happen to the programs that were going to be paid for with the learning loss portion of ESSERIII, since those funds will now be used to cover the cost of the intervention triads. The district has not responded to our request.
One middle school principal told Minneapolis Schools Voices that the funding for site-based reading teachers at middle schools next year was eliminated in the budgets for next year. The intervention triad positions can include the same type of support, the principal told us. But, because of how the triads are funded, principals will have to re-interview and hire the current reading teachers into those positions.
The middle school principal asked to remain anonymous. The principal expressed concerns about retaliation by district administration for speaking to the media without authorization. After our article about the intervention triads was published on March 10, Minneapolis Schools Voices learned district administration warned middle school principals to stop talking to the media without authorization.
The “supplement not supplant” requirement sets up a challenging situation for school districts when it comes to spending the learning loss portion for ESSERIII funds. Minneapolis Schools Voices spoke with Jess Gartner, who is the CEO and Founder of Allovue, a company that makes financial software for school districts. She is also a former middle school teacher in Baltimore Public Schools.
“Districts are between a rock and a hard place with these dollars because 80 to 90% of district budgets is usually staff. To be able to spend these ESSER dollars in the time that they have permitted to spend them, the reality is a pretty decent chunk of them are going to have to go towards staff,” Gartner said. “Particularly when you're talking about things like the learning loss provision– it's just very hard to spend money on anything that is going to have a very short term impact on student learning that doesn't involve staff.”
Gartner said meaningful academic interventions typically require three to five years of sustained funding in a school district to have a meaningful impact on students’ academic outcomes.
Speaking about ESSERIII funding nationwide, Gartner said, “I don't know what people think are these magical interventions that we're going to spend $200 billion on, and they're going to have a remarkable 18 month turn around getting kids three years up on grade level. But then all these resources are going away with barely a whimper and a sigh. That doesn't exist.”
Gartner suggests that districts consider one-time expenditures like new curriculum, which could have an ongoing impact.
“Curriculum, I think, is a fantastic investment with ESSER dollars,” Gartner said. “You often have to buy a lot of the materials that you can then reuse for several years. It's a huge upfront cost, which is why on any given regular operating year, it's really tough for districts to make those types of investments.”
Minneapolis Public Schools did not use its pandemic funds to purchase the new elementary math curriculum, Bridges/Number Corner, that the district started using this year. The district was planning to purchase a secondary math curriculum this year, but there has not been a recent public update on that process.
The district and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers reached a Memorandum of Agreement about the intervention positions after the March 14 school board meeting. The jobs were posted internally, for current MPS teachers, on March 24. The agreement between the district and the union created an early round of hiring for these positions.
Under the rules of the teacher contract, principals and school hiring committees must interview the top four candidates based on seniority, per position. They can select an additional four internal candidates based on criteria other than seniority.
The hiring process typically has two rounds. It is a bit like musical chairs, where a teacher may take a new position in round one, and their old position is now available in round two. Positions are generally not open to applicants who are not currently MPS teachers until both rounds are complete, and the district and union representatives complete two additional processes called matching and placement.
The district has moved swiftly to hire for the new teacher positions as part of the intervention triads. In the course of a week, from March 24 to March 31, the district began taking applications from internal candidates, screened applications, interviewed candidates and made offers. Any positions not filled in the early round of interviews will be posted in the first, regular round of the interview and select process. That process is scheduled to begin in early April, after spring break.
Minneapolis Schools Voices has asked the district for the number of applicants for the openings, how many openings were filled in the early round of interview and select, and how many classroom teacher vacancies were created by filling the intervention positions in the early round. We will share that information when it is provided to us.
The new intervention positions will allow a current teacher to fill the intervention position at the same school where they currently work and to have a right to return to that position if the intervention position is eliminated the following school year. If a teacher leaves a current position at one school for an intervention position at a different school, the teacher will not have a right to return to the former position. The teacher will, however, maintain their seniority in the district, and can use that to apply for an opening in the 2024-25 school year if the intervention position is eliminated.
Minneapolis Schools Voices spoke with Gartner before these rules had been agreed to. However, we did discuss the impact the new positions may have on the district’s ability to fill classroom positions in the 2023-24 school year. She said that limiting the ability to return to a previous position would make the intervention positions less attractive to current teachers whose current position is likely to be ongoing. But, the positions might be attractive to teachers whose positions were recently eliminated during budget tie-out at schools.
In Gartner’s assessment, given the difficulty districts face nationwide in hiring teachers, the more temporary the intervention positions are viewed, the less attractive they will be to teachers not currently employed by the district.
Minneapolis Schools Voices was also shown a copy of the licenses which teachers need to have to apply for the intervention positions. Those licenses include several hard-to-fill roles within the district such as English as a Second Language, and middle and high school math.
Also included are two types of licenses for special education teachers. The academic behavioral strategist license allows a teacher to work with all of the most common special education designations, including emotional and behavioral disorders and autism spectrum disorders. These are both areas where the district has had open positions for the duration of the school year at some schools. The other special education license on the list is the learning disabilities license. This license allows a teacher to teach students with “specific learning disabilities” which includes dyslexia.
Cox expressed her own doubts about the ability of the district to fill all the new vacancies at the school board meeting on March 28.
“The one worry I have, when we did the intervention triads, I’m worried about staffing them,” Cox said.