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ESSER III Spending for Mental Health and Supports for the Whole Child

By ASBO International posted 10-06-2022 10:17


Part Two of a Series on How Districts Are Using American Rescue Plan Funds to Make a Difference for Students

School closures and other changes brought about by COVID-19 brought into vivid relief the need for mental health and whole child supports for some students, and some school districts opted to apply the bulk of ESSER III funding to efforts to implement or expand such programs.

The United States Department of Education’s (USED) Back-To-School Checklist recognized Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS) in New Mexico for expanding a restorative justice program, hiring additional school psychologists, and expanding the school counselor program.

Robert Martinez, chief financial officer for SFPS, says, “it has always been part of our plan to support students’ social emotional needs, but the pandemic sort of lit the fire for us to take more of it from plan to action.”

Martinez says the district used town hall meetings to include ideas from all stakeholders, including staff, students, both unions, and community partners, and then began implementing. As the support program rolled out, counselors were asked to work within multiple schools where needed, and the district collaborated with other contractors and community partners to fill in gaps. Existing staff who had been previously trained as counselors pitched in.

“We are flexible and love the work we do. We understood that what worked for some may not work for all, but when adjustments are needed, we see that as succeeding, not failing,” Martinez says.

The district hired a second restorative justice coordinator to help students self-reflect, take ownership of mistakes, and build better patterns. “It is in no way meant to be punitive,” Martinez explains, “but about having a better vision and focus on areas that need repair while maintaining accountability.”

A leadership retreat the superintendent and cabinet held during the pandemic helped the district team coalesce and focus, Martinez shares. “So many of us were new to our positions, but we learned our strengths and weaknesses and how to work with each other. We knew we had to be confident in what we were doing, even if it didn’t align directly with what federal funding would cover,” he says. 

Martinez acknowledges that “federal funds can be difficult to budget, to use, and to report because sometimes an initiative will have a lot of unknowns. Having the program team and financial team working together to correlate how the programs will evolve and be funded has been crucial.”

“Since the rewards are on a reimbursable basis, the money was fronted from operational funds,” Martinez explains. “It required a lot of good faith. We broke it up over a three-year phase and built the budget based on that – we didn’t want to use it all right away but also wanted to make sure we spent it all.”

“When you start a new program or initiative, you look for the engagement to measure success, and the participation has been more than we ever expected,” Martinez says. “Some kids live in homes full of food and love, and others don’t have that. Of course, we tried to keep nutrition and other services going, but this increased our awareness of social emotional needs as well.”