For the past couple years, NSSD received multiple grants that were titled the Esser grants. Dealt out by the national government to schools who struggled with COVID-19, these grants were a huge help to the district in recovering from the pandemic.
The final Esser grant, numbered as the Esser 3, was the biggest grant of all three of them. The district received around 2.8 million dollars to “address student academic gaps,” immediately becoming one of the largest grants NSSD has ever received. So, what did NS do with the money?
“We actually had a needs assessment,” superintendent Nan Ault said, “and it ended up that we listed those out and then just addressed those as much as we possibly could.”
Ault went on to say that the grant was also used to provide funding towards sanitation, technology, social emotional learning, online learning, and professional development.
Sanitation spending included things like sanitizer dispensers, and non-contact water fountains. Technology was spent on things like iPads and computer labs, as well as more equipment for concurrent enrollment. Social emotional learning included the hiring of counselors for the elementary schools, amongst other things. Online learning was given a small portion, but an even larger amount of the grant went to professional development, trying to help teachers to account for younger kids’ academic loss.
All of these things fit the stipulations that came with the grant.
“Because it’s a federal grant there are boundaries and parameters that you have to follow,” Ault said. “You have to provide assurances that you will spend the money in the way that they dictate. The state has some say in that, they hold onto the funds, but basically you have to do what they say.”
Even with these boundaries, the grant was able to support NSSD with the lingering effects of COVID. Some of the biggest support went out to the elementary school, with the hiring of multiple school counselors.
“With Esser, we went from having one student counselor, in an elementary, to three,” Assistant Superintendent O’Dee Hansen said, “And every principal that I’ve talked to they say they can’t believe we functioned without this before. They see a cutdown in behavior issues and interventions are more sound.”
Even with these benefits, hiring people, especially with grants, poses a risk to those employees. Grant money is considered soft money, which means that the money won’t be around long. When an employee is hired with this money, the district has to let them know that the job might not be around forever. Even so, many of the positions have been proven themselves to be very valuable.
“We’ll finish this out,” Ault said, “but I think at this point, at least the counseling, and the student support part of it, we’ve found those to be incredibly valuable, and we’ll find some grants and other things to be able to support them. I don’t think there’s any talk about changing what we’ve done.”
Even more help has gone to elementaries through the form of teacher professional development. During COVID, all students were affected, but kids learning to read and write had the worst effect on their learning. So, the district delegated a large part of their money specifically for teachers to know how to better speed up student learning at this young age.
Despite these, the setbacks of the pandemic were relatively small. So, with the gain of this grant, NSSD was able to get ahead of the game.
“We were able to use these funds to support what was happening in the schools right now,” Ault said. “Our needs were different then maybe other states, because they see a bigger gap in academic loss then we do.”
And, now that the grant is gone, the district is satisfied with the result.
“Esser has provided an opportunity to hire great staff members that have made direct impacts and we saw the effects of it,” Hansen said, “[We’re] grateful for [the grant], but now we have to adjust.”