JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — COVID-19 hit schoolkids hard, with a recent Brookings Institution study showing sizable drops in both reading and math scores for third through eighth-graders.

A COVID-fueled school funding stream with a strange acronym, though, has made a real difference in helping students catch up academically after the chaos of the pandemic. That’s Johnson City Schools (JCS) Superintendent Steve Barnett’s assessment about so-called “ESSER” funding, and he said the system has some good data to back it up.

“Especially in those schools where we really wanted to move the needle for students using that Title I funding and the additional ESSER funding, we felt like we were able to make improvements in literacy and math,” Barnett said of the school year that just ended.

More than $1 million in federal ESSER funds for Johnson City Schools went to increase the time of interventionists like Susan Scheiman, shown here at South Side School. (WJHL Photo)

Area schools have one more year of ESSER money, which JCS has used for a variety of needs. While JCS put $10.6 million of the $23.7 million total toward facilities — much of it for climate control projects at two schools. Another $3.4 million has gone toward technology.

That’s still left more than $9 million, or nearly 40% of the total, for academics, student readiness and hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes.

The 2021-22 school year was the first of three years of ESSER funding. Barnett said research showed the biggest risks were for students in lower grades and those from schools with higher poverty rates. The Brookings study of more than 5 million students confirmed that, with test-score gaps between low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools growing by 20% in math and 15% in reading.

“Last year all of our Title I schools had ESSER-funded teachers to lower class size and to target those grade levels that were most impacted based on student test data,” Barnett said. “Usually the lower grade levels. Phonemic awareness is going to suffer when you’re not able to see your teacher’s face when they’re talking. So we were able to do that and we saw positive increases in our schools.”

He said data from “checkpoint” tests administered throughout last school year and from not-yet-publicly released TCAP scores have left JCS leaders feeling like “we used that money very wisely.”

“I feel like when this (state test score) data is not embargoed any more July 6, we’ll be able to look at that and be able to see increases in achievement in our schools where we looked at the most need.”

Making sure students have the best chance to succeed after COVID’s disruption is about far more than smaller class sizes or even extra tutoring, Barnett said. For instance, he said the city’s transit director, Eldonna Janutolo, worked hard at a time when finding enough staff was difficult and made sure bus service was available for any children staying late for extra help.

“To be able to provide bus service for students later in the day was really big for us,” he said. “It’s a very important component, getting students home. That’s one of those things that will keep a student from being able to stay after school is they don’t have transportation.”

Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett says the $23.7 million in ESSER funds has been put to good use so far and made a positive difference for students impacted by COVID-related learning loss. (WJHL Photo)

Filling those transportation needs is likely part of the $2.1 million in “other” under the ESSER “student readiness” category. Another big chunk of that category is $1.1 million specifically earmarked for mental health.

Only two other areas outside facilities and technology have over $1 million earmarked, both in the “academics” category. Tutoring programs total $1.5 million. Interventionists are budgeted at just over $1 million.

Barnett tapped Sharon Pickering, who is retiring as North Side Elementary’s principal, to essentially be the ESSER funding “czar” for the system over the coming school year. He called her a great fit due to years spent overseeing a fairly high-poverty school — although six of Johnson City’s eight schools are now Title 1 designated, meaning more than 40% of students served come from families that qualify for free or reduced lunch due to their income levels.

“She’s used (ESSER funding) well, had great ideas on the usefulness of ESSER funding in classrooms, for after school tutoring.”

Barnett said Pickering’s role will be important because “we feel like we still have a lot of work to do,” to catch students up.

“There’s a reason this money’s running out,” Barnett said. “One it’s expensive, but two, you aggressively use this money to make sure that students who have the most need are supported in our schools and at some point we can get to the point where we go back to having school like we did before the pandemic.

“That’s the hope. Money will run out and we’ll continue on with excellent instruction, sound professional development and support systems for our teachers.”