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The end of pandemic-era federal dollars may mean the end for the school programs it funded

A student at Tulsa Public Schools' Eugene Field Elementary hunts for worms at a gardening after-school program. Programs like this may be short-lived because the federal pandemic-era dollars that funded them end in September.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
A student at Tulsa Public Schools' Eugene Field Elementary hunts for worms at a gardening after-school program. Programs like this may be short-lived because the federal pandemic-era dollars that funded them end in September.

At Tulsa Public Schools’ Eugene Field Elementary, fifth-grader Andreana and third-grader Kewon plant tomatoes in Kewon’s garden box. He digs a hole between the radishes and lettuce, and Andreana gently places the tomato plant in the ground. With a few pats of his shovel, Kewon declares, “Perfect.”

The students are in an after-school program run by the nonprofit organization, Global Gardens. Each participant gets a garden box to plan, decorate, plant and harvest from throughout the school year.

Students learn about sustainable gardening through composting and using rain catchment for watering, and many of the herbs and vegetables grown in the garden are used in recipes the class prepares.

The student gardens sit outside of Eugene Field Elementary. About thirty students are participants in the after-school program run by nonprofit Global Gardens.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
The student gardens sit outside of Eugene Field Elementary. About thirty students are participants in the after-school program run by nonprofit Global Gardens.

The program is paid for by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds, which are pandemic-era federal dollars sent to schools in three installments. If schools didn’t obligate their ESSER funds for spending by certain deadlines, they would lose them.

Schools used ESSER funds for all kinds of things — new equipment, new personnel positions, new programs and partnerships.

But the final deadline for spending the third ESSER allocation is quickly approaching in September, and schools that used the extra cash for projects, like the Global Gardens after-school program, could face the end of such initiatives — unless they can find funding on their own.

In Tulsa, there are about 450 of these after-school programs. But once the ESSER funds are gone, that could shrink to just 75. Currently, program offerings include biking, orchestra, running, theater and debate, among many others — all provided for free to Tulsa Public Schools students.

Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
A rain catchment barre allows students to learn about sustainable gardening practices. 

The Opp Project LLC, also known as “The Opp,” is an intermediary that oversees the management of these programs. Part of the ESSER funds awarded to the district flowed to the Tulsa Community Foundation, down to The Opp, then to the individual programs and program partners.

Lauren Sivak is the executive director at The Opp, and she said after-school opportunities provide a safe place for students to keep learning after the school day ends.

“I had an opportunity to chat with a fourth-grade student as she was waiting for her chess club to begin,” Sivak said. “And she said to me, ‘If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be home alone.’ And I have not forgotten that statement since those words left her mouth. And that is a big concern to me.”

The return on investment for after-school programs

According to integrated data used by TPS, students who participated in these after-school programs were 43% less likely than their peers to be chronically absent — that’s when students miss at least 10% of school days in a school year. Sivak said they are also places where students can expand their interests and work on important life skills without worrying about grades or other classroom pressures.

When the funding runs out, Sivak said she also worries about the community impact. Teachers and other staff get paid to lead these activities.

“One of the things that is of concern to me is the workforce development piece,” Sivak said. “That too goes away. So it’s not only the impact on the young learner, but it’s also an impact on the community that surrounds them.”

Shawn Hime is the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. He said all schools are facing down the ESSER cliff and having to make tough calls.

“Our school districts have found ESSER funds that met needs of students [and] are now in a situation where they have to do one of two things: they have to decide, do I keep that and do away with something else?,” Hime said. “Or do I eliminate that program because I have something ongoing that’s more valuable? Or do we find other funding for that?”

As the legislative session begins to come to a close, there’s not an appetite in the budget this year for lawmakers to step in and fill the funding gap the ESSER cliff is about to leave.

Prioritizing state dollars for after-school opportunities over in-school ones can be a tough sell, said Caroline Crouch, executive director of communications and strategy for Tulsa Public Schools.

Crouch previously oversaw expanded learning initiatives, including after-school programs. She said it’s incumbent on advocates to have the tough conversations with policymakers and donors about the return on investment after-school programming provides.

“It feels to a lot of people like it’s soft and fuzzy, right? You know, this ain’t no reading, writing and arithmetic,” Crouch said. “A few years ago, we had the first- or second-year debate club at Walt Whitman Elementary. And every single student who was in their debate club did better on their English language [and] math assessments than they had before.”

Beth Wallis
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Data provided by The Opp

She said outside of the technical skills students learn from individual programs, young people also gain skills they need to be successful adults. These are not necessarily “the skills that are going to get you a job, but they’re the skills that are going to help you keep the job.”

“How to get along with people, how to disagree but disagree in a respectful way,” Crouch said. “How to have hard conversations. How to be empathetic, how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. How to persevere and accept disappointment and all of those things that, yes, you do experience during the school day. But a really high-quality out-of-school program should be teaching those on purpose and integrating that into everything that people are doing.”

Crouch said the district hopes the data it tracks about after-school program students will give program partners a way to build cases for finding sustainable funding for the future. She said everyone knew from the start that ESSER dollars were a limited-time opportunity.

“The stimulus dollars were sort of like pennies from heaven,” Crouch said. “From the district’s perspective, we felt a lot of urgency around making sure that not only the intermediary, [The Opp], but the individual program providers themselves both understood that this was something that at some point would taper off, but also that we were empowering them with that information and those tools so that they could really be their own best advocates.”

'3... 2... 1... Bon appetit!'

At Eugene Field, the Global Gardeners are more focused on making a harvested carrot-top pesto spread than the grind of searching for grants and donors. Fifth-grader Andreana said, last week, the group made cookies with harvested ingredients that they named “Solar Eclipse Bites.”

“The Solar Eclipse Bites were so good,” Andreana said as she headed inside the classroom kitchen. “Even with a vegetable in it!”

Global Gardens garden educator Mary Smith shows a student how to use a food processor at Tulsa Public Schools' Eugene Field Elementary. The students made a carrot top pesto spread with harvested greens from the after-school program's garden.
Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Global Gardens garden educator Mary Smith shows a student how to use a food processor at Tulsa Public Schools' Eugene Field Elementary. The students made a carrot top pesto spread with harvested greens from the after-school program's garden.

Students gathered around a table and chopped carrot greens, spinach, basil and kale. They added oil, lemon juice and garlic into a food processor, and garden educator Mary Smith talked through potential flavor profiles as she folded in the pesto with whipped butter.

She then went around the group with a magnetic chart for students to place markers on a corresponding smiley face, predicting how much they’d like the new dish.

After the students spread it over slices of bread, one counted off, “Three, two, one, bon appétit!” The others echoed and took bites. Many went back for seconds, and some for thirds.

Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Global Gardens garden educator Mary Smith shows asks students to rate their harvested pesto dish before and after tasting it. The students gave the spread high marks.

Smith again went around the group with the magnetic board, asking students to mark their reactions. Across the board, the dish got the highest marks.

Afterward, she gathered with the students on the carpeted floor as they talked about what they appreciated that day. Surrounded by gardening calendars, an enormous indoor grow tower, photos of the students in the garden and cooking supplies, the kids said they appreciated their teachers, Global Gardens, carrot-top pesto and getting to do a garden scavenger hunt earlier that afternoon.

Then they put their hands together and counted off, “Three, two, one — pesto rocks!”

Asked why folks outside of TPS should care about these programs going away, The Opp’s Lauren Sivak said she hoped they could be a model for other communities to dream big about creating lasting, impactful opportunities — to “push beyond a scarcity mindset and adopt one of abundance.”

Tulsa got a taste of what it looks like to pour resources into after-school programming, and program partners and participants hope that taste will whet the appetite of policymakers and philanthropic organizations to keep this garden growing.

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.