The Fulton County School System plans to spend $45 million over two years to boost students’ academic recovery from learning losses caused by the pandemic. The “FOCUS” plan will direct more students to summer school and extend learning time through one-on-one or small group instruction.

Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones and seven FCS principals, including Sandy Springs Middle School Principal Laurie Woodruff, explained the plan to the Board of Education at its April 23 pre-work session before a regular meeting.

“Many of our students have been academically impacted by the conditions of COVID. In FCS, our students’ reading development has been impacted more than their math skills. And the data shows that the impact on learning has been greater for economically disadvantaged, Hispanic, Latino, English language learners and male students,” Jones said.

He said FCS can boost academic recovery by expanding current practices through the FOCUS plan. Its two-year, $45 million budget is 60% of what FCS received in the federal Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER), referred to as CARES 2 funds.

A flexible use of extended time is being designed by two committees of the FOCUS team. One team focuses on summer school and the other is working on extended time plans during the school year and after the school day.

“To say that this year has been anything less than challenging would be an understatement,” said Laurie Woodruff, principal of Sandy Springs Middle School and a member of the curriculum mapping team.

She pointed out in the FCS FOCUS plan, an assessment of students’ success will be tied to accelerated learning programs, such as extended time for learning and one-on-one or small group tutoring. Teachers will be given sample schedules to help them increase the effectiveness of the programs intended to remedy learning loss caused by the pandemic and remote learning.

Since FCS already has programs to get students back on track academically, the FOCUS team worked to use them to accelerate learning.

“Creating opportunities and eliminating obstacles became critical to our mission,” she said.

The budget for FOCUS was divided into five areas.

The largest portion of the $23.35 million of federal funding budgeted for the extended time devoted to students will fund an expanded summer school program. Summer school in 2021 will be held at 35 sites, with 1,658 teachers and staff. Sessions will be held June 7-24 for elementary, middle and high school students, and July 1-22 for elementary and high school students only. 

“Extended time has the largest budget, because of the expanded scope of summer school. We are budgeting $10 million this year and $8 million next year for summer school,” Jones said.

FCS will budget $9.5 million for its High-Dosage Small Groups plan, which uses paraprofessional support, Tutor Core, partners and volunteers.

“They’re focused on creating systems and schedules and resources to ensure students who are multiple years behind grade level will have at least three 30-minute small group sessions per week,” Jones said. That creates a minimum of 50 hours per semester of “high-dosage” learning for these students.

FCS has 9,500 students judged to be 3 or more years behind, with 28,500 who are more than one year behind. Tutoring by paraprofessionals at elementary schools, paid tutors or tutoring services for middle schools and high school and adult volunteers are anticipated for high school students.

A nationally normed Robust Assessment Strategy was budgeted with $1.2 million to find or create ways to assess students and capture information on their progress without adding to their testing burden.

The school district will use its existing Professional Development staff, programs and budget to help train teaching staff to adopt accelerated learning methods, so none of the federal funding was used for this part of the FOCUS plan.

To keep parents engaged, FCS budgeted $500,000 from the federal funding to create a parent hub that connects them to the FOCUS plan efforts. 

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.