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Using ESSER funds for College & Career Success

Q&A Session with Denver Public Schools leaders

We sat down with Denver Public Schools leaders Tamara Acevedo, Deputy Superintendent of Academics; Bernard McCune, Associate Chief of Academics; and Tera Jones, Chief of Staff of Academics, to hear how DPS’ ESSER investments are being used to reimagine the high school experience and ensure that every student is prepared for college and career success.

ERS: How did you think about your vision for college and career success pre-pandemic? 

Acevedo: As part of a district reorganization, we came together to work on a combined overall vision. That vision has morphed over time—with a lot of engagement from the team—into the vision that we have now:

DPS Vision for Career and College Success

"Our vision is that all students have equitable access to a variety of college and career preparatory coursework, programs, resources and learning environments. We empower students with the skills and opportunities they need to navigate options and take ownership of their learning. We provide tangible support, opportunities and resources to students throughout their time in DPS to ensure that students are not only ready for career and college, but prepared to be successful in their career, including the relevant college experiences."

We have a variety of options and programs available across the city, and we make sure that students have agency and know and understand about themselves. We then look to see what level of support we're providing in accessing the programs.

ERS: Can you describe the progress made—and challenges of achieving this vision—as you entered COVID? 

Acevedo: While we've done a lot of work, the pandemic opened up how much more work there is to do, and how much work we really need to do to support change and innovation in what's happening in high schools. While we’ve worked really hard to build the variety of opportunities and programs we have for students, where you live and what you can access can still be a gatekeeper to those opportunities. We need to develop our strategy further for each area of the city to make sure that those options are truly options available to all kids. It's one thing for you to know about different opportunities, it’s another thing for you to be able to access them.

ERS: What were the main areas of your ESSER investments, and how did they move your long-term vision forward?

Acevedo: We worked within the priority of accelerated learning, asking: How are we going to move into the recovery year and truly accelerate student learning? We called it “accelerating learning by re-envisioning education.”

We tried to think differently based on national research and what we were doing differently within our schools. Through that we focused on some main areas. One was planning for culturally and linguistically responsive education: So, at the core level what are we doing with instruction? Another was transformative, social, emotional, and academic learning to support students through the pandemic.

Our last main area of investment was in expanded academic learning—resources like summer programming, grade level tutoring, and opportunities to capitalize on virtual programming—which might give more access to courses like AP or concurrent enrollment. 


tamara acevedoTamara Acevedo,
Deputy Superintendent of Schools

Jones: In terms of ESSER investments around expanded academic learning, we strengthened all our high school entry programs and high school transition programs. We invested ESSER resources into ninth grade on-track work, which we know has demonstrated a lot of success in propelling ninth grade students into high school and supporting their graduation outcomes.

We've also been able to expand assessment options and flexibility to help students meet the competency demonstration portion of the graduation requirements in Colorado. Many of those components are assessment-based and we were able to increase access to some of those assessments (PSAT and SAT, specifically) because of some of the pandemic-impacted access issues that we’d seen previously.


Tera Jones
Chief of Staff of Academics

ERS: Tutoring is something many districts are focusing on. How is your investment here targeting your long-term student experience goals around equity and access?

Acevedo: We’re really trying to focus even more on STEM, which also goes with the work we've been doing with equity and what we know is true in the data: that Black and brown students have less access to instruction across disciplines and reading and writing across disciplines, which really limits opportunities later. Research shows that these students have many opportunities in sociology, for example, but less in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. 

For example, in the spring of last year we engaged in an outcomes-based tutoring pilot through a connection with Harvard. And with that pilot, we moved into this year doing outcomes-based tutoring in mathematics at the secondary level with a group called Cignition, because we know mathematics is one of the hardest-hit areas for kids based on the loss of instruction. From the recommendations from the design group, we identified money for tutoring in both math and early literacy in elementary school as well. 

Jones: Schools have been asked to prioritize recruitment for students in tutoring that are part of our prioritized populations for ESSER spend—multilingual learners, students with disabilities, and students of color. We have successfully maintained and increased these demographics through targeted recruitment and ongoing progress-monitoring with schools.

Our mathematics tutors have an average of 11 years of teaching experience and 47.5% of tutors have a master's degree. By hiring highly skilled tutors, providing them with standards-based curriculum aligned with each school's scope and sequence, and ensuring tutors participate in ongoing professional learning and receive ongoing coaching, we’re ensuring that students can access grade-level content. In recent empathy interviews with 80 students, we found that students from all grade levels reported more ease in asking questions during tutoring due to the smaller class size, compared to their regular math class. This engagement, in some cases, has begun to translate to students feeling confident to participate in their regular math class as well.

ERS: How have you been engaging the community and stakeholders in the decision-making process and how has that informed your strategy and programming going forward?

Acevedo: When we were looking at using ESSER funds and developing our recovery strategy, we engaged in a process of design teamwork, where we brought educators together with school leaders and some of our central office folks to look at national research and see what's been working and what the recommendations are. We put that into context of what the leaders and the teachers are seeing. We built it together as a community, had deliverables that came out of that, and that’s what we used to inform our plan. It’s the plan for how we budget it and our district-wide major improvement strategy, and we put it in a cycle where we can progress monitor on it to check impact and growth and make sure actions are happening.

McCune: I just wanted to add that those learning groups also included community partners. We did a forum with Colorado Education Initiative that included parents and other stakeholders to get their input around needs or uses for ESSER funds. We had a robust process that included educators, but also a broader community.

Jones: We've also been working on curricular adjustments to ensure that our curriculum is reflective and responsive for all our students, which is reflective in the work of the “Know Justice, Know Peace” resolution.

Acevedo: “Know Justice, Know Peace” has been part of the planning for culturally and linguistically responsive education work, and is an example of how student engagement helped shape our decisions about investing resources and money to make sure that we are providing culturally and linguistically responsive materials and instruction. 


bernard mccune

Bernard McCune
Associate Chief of Academics

We've worked to identify exemplary teachers that are implementing culturally and linguistically responsive education so that we can get input and feedback from them on some of the tools and materials we're using and can build a cadre of people that will do professional learning coaching and work with our educators.

ERS: Could you speak on what you think is important about how you've organized as a team to get something like this off the ground and running?

Acevedo: When we initially received the funding, it was one of the first times that our operations team, finance side, and learning side really came together. We looked at the national research and identified areas of investment, then provided those to the finance team who went over the budget development process for individual schools. We worked with the finance side to deliver the message to schools that they were getting the funding for a specific purpose—the areas we were focusing on at the district level—for them to then utilize at the individual school level for what made sense to them. That partnership and collaboration has been really important.

Jones: We also created a new department for the expanded academic learning work. One of the recommendations that came out of our design team was to have a place where expanding academic learning can really live and be fostered, which led to the creation of a small and mighty new department to ground, lead, and coordinate that work across the district.

ERS: What lessons have you learned from COVID and how are you going to apply that into the future to keep some of this going?

McCune: When we say expanded academic learning as it relates to ESSER funding for college and career success, it’s not just about extending things that we’ve already done, but also how we look at things in a different way. The funding will go away, but the great thing about working in a school district is that this funding gives us an opportunity to try some things and get some proof points. And since every year during the budget development process we get to prioritize what is most impactful for students and then fund that, our belief is that some of our investments with ESSER funding will show student impact and we can continue them in the future.

Jones: Some of the things that we've invested in will be able to just be self-sustaining. This work that we're doing—around the instructional core, the capacity building that we're doing planning for culturally and linguistically responsive education—is naturally sustaining because it is requiring some influx of funds right now that we can support through ESSER, but it's really about the capacity building of the adults within the system to be able to deliver better instruction to kids along the way.

Acevedo: One of the lessons learned coming out of the pandemic, and the ability to have additional funding, is making sure we’re fostering the continued use of technology as an integral part of a student's experience in college success. We believe college success starts in elementary school, so we had to determine how every one of our students could have access to a device that they take home and use within content areas that we provide coaching and training on. Right now we’re looking at how to fund that for the future. Devices used to be just within a school’s budget, but we put structures and systems in place to fund them at the district level. That’s an example of how we take lessons learned and work with the finance team to find out how to utilize dollars differently to sustain it. 

We're having lessons learned on smaller scales that have a larger impact as well. In grade-level tutoring in high school, it's been difficult getting students to complete the number of hours that they need. We've been discussing how to make adjustments such as which students we are targeting for tutoring that will make an impact, while also looking at avenues for different groups of kids. The first line of business is getting the strategy down—we have a little bit of time because we received additional funding from our state—and once we can identify the strategy that’s showing the most gains, then we can look at what it’s going to cost us moving forward in terms of access.


See how visionary district leaders are using ESSER funds to transform high schools across the country

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