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Building Towards Sustainable Change

How Visionary Leaders Are Using ESSER Funds to Transform High Schools Across the Country

The desire for a transformed student experience in high school is not new. Students, families, and educators across the country have long desired a high school experience that feels relevant and engaging for students, and that is truly linked to students' current lives and future plans. 

Post-pandemic, this appetite for a high school transformation is stronger now than ever—as is the need. Students have experienced more than a year of disrupted learning, with disproportionate impacts on students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Across the country, course failures are higher than ever, graduation rates are dipping, and students are grappling with social-emotional challenges on a scale never seen. 

As districts are asking how they can reengage students in this challenging landscape, parents and community members are increasingly demanding an improved and equitable student experience in high school. In many districts, traditional high school designs and existing resource use patterns don't enable strong relationship-building, engaging and relevant student experiences, or sufficient individualized support.

The unprecedented infusion of federal stimulus funds (ESSER) provides an important opportunity for districts to equitably meet students' needs and lay the foundation for meaningful, long-term change. However, the realities on the ground in our districts right now make stakeholder engagement, dedication of time, and staff change management a challenge. Additionally, while we know that high-performing high schools organize resources differently, high school resource use has long remained stubborn to change. How do we overcome this stubbornness and take advantage of the current moment in a way that doesn't overload the capacity of our people? And how do we balance investments that satisfy an acute need in the short-term with those that will build toward long-term change?

With most school districts reporting that they’re behind in their ESSER spending plans, there's still time to use these funds in ways that can fundamentally transform the high school experience.  

We analyzed the ESSER plans of 16 partner districts to understand how they’re using the relief money to improve high schools—both now and for the future. 

Our analysis shows districts are using about half of ESSER funds for operational needs, such as critical facility upgrades and health and safety investments. The other half is going more directly toward supporting instruction, like improving curricular resources, offering new professional learning opportunities for teachers, and extending student time and support through tutoring, summer learning time, or intercessions. 

Over half of the districts that we evaluated included high school-specific programs in their spending. These include initiatives to improve and expand college and career counseling, academic support, career and technical education, access to advanced coursework, and out-of-school opportunities to learn.  

Many of these investment patterns—whether spanning the K-12 system or targeted to high school—are in areas that are likely to have an impact on the high school experience. And when planned carefully, they could have lasting positive outcomes. 

Unfortunately, these investments could also be implemented in ways that result in little change when funding is peeled back in the next few years. This is why it’s so vital that districts approach these investments with a “Do Now, Build Toward” mentality: improving the student experience with initiatives that are doable right now while also using ESSER dollars as an opportunity to make progress toward a long-term vision and strategy for an improved student experience at the high school level. Strategic districts are addressing long-term sustainability by not just layering new resources on top, but using this moment as an opportunity to redesign resource use—making key shifts in the way they approach scheduling, staffing, and budgeting. 

Denver Public Schools and Anne Arundel County Public Schools provide powerful examples of seizing this unique moment to implement ESSER-funded initiatives that not only address urgent crises but make significant strides in service of long-standing goals: to create more effective and equitable high school environments, experiences, and outcomes. 

Denver Public Schools: re-envisioning education with ESSER support 

For Denver Public Schools (DPS), COVID arrived in the middle of an ongoing conversation about transforming the high school experience. The pre-pandemic vision—which encompasses all grades—includes the goal that all high school students have equitable access to resources and environments where they can develop the skills and opportunities needed to be successful in their careers. 

And although this work was already in progress before COVID, for many stakeholders across the system, the pandemic intensified the need for change. Tamara Acevedo, Deputy Superintendent of Academics at DPS, reflected: “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 high schools.”

“How are all the adults and people in the system—including kids—having the opportunity to be empowered to really think differently about the way we do school?” Brittany Miller, Senior Director of Expanded Academic Learning, Denver Public Schools


As DPS thought about how they might use ESSER funds in this moment, they began by working together with a broad set of stakeholders across the system—educators, school leaders, administrators, community stakeholders, and students—to ask what recovery strategy might move their instructional vision forward broadly while also meeting urgent and intensified student needs post-pandemic. 

Design groups came together to look at national research and DPS-specific data on student needs, and put that in the context of what students, teachers, and leaders were experiencing in DPS classrooms. The result: a multi-faceted strategy titled “Accelerating Learning by Re-Envisioning Education” that is anchored by the central understanding that today’s work to support recovery needs must be deeply connected with the district’s long-term strategy to re-envision what students experience at school.

On a tactical level, this strategy provided a framework for spending decisions, enabling decision-makers to prioritize investments that directly supported this overarching vision. However, this strategy transcended spending design to impact work more broadly at DPS: helping to redefine resource use as a whole and the way that students experience schools. 


DPS Vision for Career & 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’ll take a look at some examples of how DPS joined ESSER spending together with their broader and longer-term strategy in the three main areas of their Accelerating Learning by Re-Envisioning Education strategy: planning for culturally and linguistically responsive education, expanded academic learning, and transformative, social, emotional, and academic learning. 


The first major area of focus identified by DPS working groups was around providing more culturally and linguistically responsive materials and instruction. The team first worked to identify exemplary teachers who were already implementing culturally and linguistically responsive education, and this continues to be an ongoing process. These teachers provide input and feedback on some of the current tools and materials and form a cadre of experts to do professional learning coaching and work with other educators. 

While this is long-term work deeply embedded within broader instructional strategy, the team was able to target ESSER funds to accelerate the system’s capacity for high-quality implementation: funding stipends for the teacher cadre to participate and bringing in national experts to work alongside DPS’ own expert educators.  

Meanwhile, the district is also realigning existing resources to ensure this new capacity is able to affect teacher practice throughout the system. DPS shifted away from three all-day professional learning days throughout the year to six half-days, enabling teachers to work with cohort teams and content leads to integrate new, culturally and linguistically relevant practices into their instructional planning in an ongoing way. 


To give students more learning opportunities, DPS bet big on expanding learning both inside and outside of the school day. While much of ESSER funding related to this strategy is supporting the addition of time to the day and year, added time is not the full picture. The center of the district's strategy includes new approaches to expanded academic learning that cross instruction time inside and outside the school day. This ensures that DPS's recovery strategies and ESSER funds have long-term impacts—and connect to their ultimate vision for an equitable, engaging student experience.

“The continuation and deepening of summer programs and opportunities has given us the opportunity to connect back to core instruction. As we’ve designed these opportunities and learned from them, we’ve been mindful of core instruction FIRST.”
 Tamara Acevedo, Deputy Superintendent of Academics, Denver Public Schools


One example of this is DPS’ focus in their expanded academic learning work on STEM instruction, as well as reading and writing across the disciplines. This focus is grounded in their long-term aspiration for equity as well as the research base, which indicates that Black and brown students tend to have less access to high-quality instruction in these areas, which limits future opportunities particularly in STEM fields. These areas have been a focus of DPS’ summer and other support and enrichment opportunities. For example, some of DPS’ expanded summer programming focused on STEM, and their initial tutoring pilot targeted math for grades 6-12.  

But DPS leaders say that the most critical part of their work on STEM and literacy across disciplines lies in their work to change instructional practices within core day-to-day instruction. To this end, they’ve partnered with leading experts to advise them on how to integrate these ideas much more broadly into instructional practice.  

Transformative Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning

DPS leaders knew that an important part of their recovery work would be to support students’ social and emotional and mental health needs, which intensified during the pandemic. 

District leaders asked all schools to add at least 20 minutes of time focused on transformative social, emotional, and academic learning (TSEAL) to their schedules. ESSER funding was targeted to support teachers and school staff in using that time well, and to invest in new curriculum materials for social-emotional learning. 

At the high school level, this opened the door to accelerate work that many schools had already begun: an advisory period that paired social and emotional learning experiences with college and career planning.

While new TSEAL supports are responding to an immediate need, they also link directly to DPS’ long-term vision of empowering students to “navigate options and take ownership of their learning” with “tangible support.” By focusing ESSER funding on capacity building through training and curriculum, while changing the existing use of resources in school schedules, DPS has ensured that the changes they make will outlast immediate pandemic response. 


See our Q&A with 
DPS leaders!

Planning for Sustainability  

DPS leaders have designed ESSER funding to support sustainability in three key ways. 

First, they started with a clear strategy, grounded in research, but also local context and the experiences and perspectives of their stakeholders. While the dollars attached to these strategies over time may shift, the strategy itself and its impact on students and teachers can persist.  

Second, they focused ESSER dollars first on building the long-term capacity of existing talent. This included both training and curriculum for social-emotional learning and culturally and linguistically responsive education. It also comes through in their effort to focus expanded learning work on changing core instruction first. 

Third, DPS leaders are also working to realign existing resources within the context of their three investment areas—not just adding more—to create a more sustainable foundation for future efforts. We see this in all three examples above: DPS re-aligned professional learning time, is focusing expanded learning efforts on existing and added time, and added social and emotional learning and advisory time across the board to schedules.  

Ongoing learning meets continuous improvement 

Leaders recognize that their recovery strategy and its related investments are vital next steps toward the goal of preparing students for college and career success, but that if it stops here, the vision will not be realized. And they know they won’t get it perfect the first time. That’s why DPS has deliberately prioritized continuous improvement as a critical part of their work and their ESSER investment—another intentional effort to keep sustainability at the forefront of this high school transformation. 

“This funding gives us an opportunity try some things and get some proof points, and every year during the budget
development process, we actually get to prioritize what is most impactful for students and then fund that.”
 Bernard McCune, Associate Chief of Academics, Denver Public Schools

Leaders have designed working groups for each of the three priority areas that will convene throughout the year to discuss progress and improvement areas. Additionally, the district created systems focused on implementing, monitoring, and evolving their “re-envisioning education by accelerating learning” plan, and a new central department to implement much of the work. Through these efforts, DPS leaders have positioned the district to make data-driven decisions, continually build on progress, and invest in transformational opportunities that can last. 

Anne Arundel County Public Schools: Applying lessons learned through new investments

When thinking about the changes they were trying to make to the student experience at the high school level, leaders of Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) started with some important lessons from the pandemic.  

First, the pandemic had inspired leaders to create more unstructured time in student schedules for choice and socialization, which they saw benefited students. Second, teachers and students had learned more about operating successfully in a virtual setting, which expanded student access to a wider variety of courses. Both lessons connected directly to a vision AACPS already had for long-term changes to the student experience. 

District leaders also responded directly to data showing that student needs had intensified during the pandemic and used this data to inform ESSER investments. For instance, i-Ready and course failure data showed that students needed expanded access to credit recovery and course retake—at times that would work for them. 

Using ESSER to transform student experiences  

AACPS approached transforming the student experience through a combination of strategic ESSER investments and shifts in underlying resource use. With that mindset, they developed three areas of focus to create more space for social and emotional learning, academic access, and intervention and support: 



District leaders aligned schedules across all their high schools, making it clear that supporting students would be a cohesive, district-wide approach. This enabled schools to expand their course offerings and create new access to advanced courses through virtual learning. For example, a teacher could teach a first-period course at one school, while students in another school—who might not have otherwise had access to the course—could join during the same time virtually. This approach has proven especially helpful for under-enrolled classes and hard-to-staff subjects and can boost access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. 


Mid-pandemic, virtual learning schedules allowed for more flexible use of time that students and staff found immensely valuable. With ESSER funding (and following the newly aligned bell schedules), this step could be implemented for in-person schedules. District leaders reduced class periods slightly, allowing them to add two daily 30-minute flex periods into the schedule. Educators use these flex blocks to offer students assessment re-takes, the chance to finish projects, and extra academic support. The new periods also allow more students to participate in clubs and have made time for all students to receive social and emotional learning instruction.  

“Teachers appreciate that additional academic support time to help students who need help, do things like
offer re-do's or assessments, or even just offer students time to work on a project." 
Matthew Stanksi, Director of Financial Operations, Anne Arundel County Public Schools


In response to i-Ready and course failure data during the pandemic, and student feedback around needing courses at non-traditional times of day, AACPS prioritized out-of-school learning experiences. With ESSER funding, the district was able to develop or expand several initiatives targeting this need. 

The district revamped its after-school twilight program, extending it to all schools, running it year-round (as opposed to just in the spring), and making it free for all students. AACPS also expanded its evening school program, which is available in five locations and virtually. This program helps current students with credit recovery and expanded options for course-taking, as well as students who have dropped out and are looking to re-enroll and work toward a high school degree. Finally, the district is also expanding career and technical course offerings to weekends and evenings, beginning next year. 

Sustainability, not short-term 

What makes Anne Arundel’s approach sustainable is the strong focus on shifting underlying resources in conjunction with ESSER spending. AACPS knows that ESSER isn’t just used for quick fixes: It’s a strategic acceleration of long-term changes that will continue to drive impact long after the last dollar is spent. The district has already shifted many underlying resource patterns alongside their ESSER investments, such as the changes they’ve made to high school schedules district-wide.  

In addition, district leadership is thinking carefully—and early—about which new investments they’ll want to sustain going forward. This means that budget conversations this year have begun to drill into the performance of each investment and what long-term reallocation might look like to sustain the most important investments post-ESSER. With a mindset of continual growth and ongoing improvement, Anne Arundel is well-positioned to improve the high school experience across the district for years to come. 



To transform high schools in your district, see our ESSER Guides for School Staffing, Spending & Scheduling.

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