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Building the ESSER Network: A Q&A with ERS Partner Emily Parfit

In June 2021, six months after the allocation of an additional $54 billion in funds to public schools through ESSER II, Education Resource Strategies convened ESSER strategy leads from 12 large urban districts across the country to explore a crucial question: what will it mean to effectively steward this unprecedented influx of funds?

Eventually growing to 18 districts, this ESSER Network met monthly from July 2021 to December 2022 to discuss how school and district leaders could use this dramatic change in funding as strategically and effectively as possible. This included where to invest, the processes of implementation for those investments, creating models of continuous improvement, and more.

Emily Parfit, recently promoted to Partner at ERS, oversaw the management of the network alongside a team of ERS consultants. In celebration of her promotion, we sat down to talk with her about the network, the challenges it faced, what it accomplished, and how districts can continue to make smart investments moving forward.


 #1 | What initially inspired you and the team to start the ESSER Network? Why did it feel necessary at that moment? 

ERS was having conversations with many district leaders at that time, helping them navigate the early days of the pandemic, and it became clear that more than ever districts were facing analogous challenges. This unexpected influx in funds was not just unprecedented in scale; there were also fewer guidelines and guardrails on how the money should be spent. Because of that, it was hard for district leaders to know how this sudden, significant funding could be used most effectively. It was an incredible opportunity to bring like-minded people together to problem-solve and learn with and from each other. 

So, it was clear from the beginning that one of the benefits of the network was that it was a protected space for people who were going through this experience together to share, learn from each other, and get support during such a challenging time.

Without the group of people who were willing to put in the work and be vulnerable, we wouldn't have been able to do what we did.

 #2 | What were some of the challenges that districts were facing when the network began? 

We started after ESSER I, which was the smallest amount of funding and primarily for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). When people started to see the amounts for ESSER II and then for ESSER III, there became this overwhelming challenge of figuring out what some of the best possible uses of these one-time funds were, what was a strong approach for deciding how to spend the dollars to get the greatest impact, and what else did we need to do to show that this level of investment in public education is critical and impactful?

From that core challenge, we started with a set of guiding principles for districts, and that was really the driving force for the network moving forward. What did it look like to ground this spending in what kids actually need right now? What does it look like to monitor the progress of spending and show the impact over time? 

 #3 | What were some of those key spending strategies you all explored? 

There were four strategies that we dug into right away: tutoring, early literacy, investments in the teaching job, and high school redesign.

Everyone wanted to figure out how to get going on tutoring. It was a great fit for one-time funding and the moment districts were in—the combination of kids needing the additional time and attention to catch up, tutoring having a proven track record for improving outcomes, families asking for that type of support, and the fact that districts could mobilize outside providers to add capacity. The challenge was figuring out how to marshal the resources in ways that meant the design of the program would match what research says works. ERS was able to bring the research base and design principles, and a couple of early mover districts brought their draft plans. From there, the group basically workshopped the approach together. 

The other topics were also top of mind, especially the teaching job challenges coming out of the pandemic, but the other sessions focused much more on exploring potential approaches on how to apply the one-time funding to meet the needs of the community. The best investments to make were not as obvious, so we brought in experts from each field to speak to the ways that the one-time funding could be applied to improve service delivery in meaningful ways.  

 #4 | ESSER halftime was a big moment for the network. How did your team work with districts to evaluate and scale spending initiatives? 

The work of the ESSER halftime review was forward-looking, not evaluative of where districts had been so far. We received data from districts, ran the diagnostics, and asked: “If this is where we are now, what do we need to focus on for the back half?”

Then, we were able to look across a handful of districts and identify big themes and points of growth. A big one was that districts were having trouble using their ESSER funding equitably. There were significant challenges with vacancies in higher-need schools in particular, which made it much more difficult for them to spend down funds. So, we came together to think about what it was going to take to ensure that the highest-need schools were getting what they needed for their kids, and part of that was scaling initiatives that were having an impact on students and then pulling back initiatives that simply weren't.

 #5 | What were some of the things that you looked for in those programs to determine which initiatives should be scaled versus which should be pulled back? 

At that moment, and frankly, in education in general, it’s difficult to prove that something’s working. We talked a lot about ROI as a group, and the biggest takeaway was that the ROI of these investments needed to be measured by something other than scores on end-of-year tests because we couldn’t wait for that data to start making critical decisions. Instead, we looked at uptake and participation rates in different programs, how resources were being utilized by different student groups or higher- and lower-need schools, satisfaction and survey data, and where available, formative assessment data. 

We’d collect whatever we could for a given initiative, and then we would have the district’s plan for what they were anticipating spending on that initiative. From there, we were able to see more clearly what was working and where roadblocks were being hit. It was interesting to see how just one data point, such as the percentage of positions filled, could make district leaders feel much more confident in making dramatic reallocation decisions. If something was taking off, and something else wasn’t, then it just made sense to start putting resources toward the thing that seemed to be meeting a need for our kids or families or schools. 

 #6 | The ESSER Network recently ended after about 18 months. What made you know it was the right time to phase it out?

Eventually, we got to the place where each district’s core challenge was much more context-specific and couldn’t necessarily be resolved through the same methods we were using in the network. We did a bit of small group work towards the end for folks with similar challenges, and then we just let folks use the connections they had built over the last year to continue to find support where they needed it.

 #7 | What strategies are we seeing in districts to help set themselves up for success in a post-ESSER world? And what advice would you have for these districts as funding runs out? 

It comes down to being thoughtful about the staircase you're building off the cliff and digging deep into legacy investments that are no longer needed or can be repurposed to sustain what worked from this period with more resources in schools. 

The districts with the best plans for the ESSER cliff have a strong vision for what they are building towards, a multi-year understanding of their financial forecast, and a foundation of rigorous continuous improvement practices. The multi-year financial forecast ought to include enrollment projections, revenue, and projected expenses. Then, they can layer onto that the portion of their ESSER funds that are winding down because the need is no longer there, the portion of their ESSER funds they can make a strong case for new revenue or funding streams, and the portion of their ESSER funds they want to seek to sustain moving forward. The foundation of continuous improvement practices will help district teams examine what parts of their strategy are working and where they need to pivot away from prior practice. 

#8 | Changing gears a bit, regarding your promotion, what are you the most excited about in your new role? What are some things that this new role allows you to do, and what are you excited to take on?

One of the things I loved about the ESSER Network was getting a window into how many different districts operate and building my understanding of similar, and unique, challenges they’re facing. As a Partner, I will continue to have even more opportunities to work with multiple districts and their amazing teams at once, which I anticipate will give me even more insight into what’s unique and special about each district’s approach and their communities and help me find ways to quickly identify opportunities for connections across districts.

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