Oregon’s Student Success Act was supposed to fix much of the ills of public school — then the pandemic hit

Less money has stalled efforts students need now more than ever.

ABOVE PHOTO: Art Tech HIgh School counselor Cheryl Wilson congratates every student at graduation in June 2018. New federal funds to provide additional counselors in Oregon public schools was supposed to be a game-changer, until the pandemic hit.  PMG File Photo

 

It was billed as a boon for schools. The Student Success Act was passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2019, promising to devote $2 billion every two years to invest in early learning, reduce class sizes and improve outcomes and access to mental health resources for kids. It was hailed as a historic investment in Oregon’s students.

But since the bill’s passage, districts across the state have had to significantly downsize their plans to increase academic investments and to bolster mental health support staff during a time when students needed more behavioral health intervention than ever before.

That’s largely because the coronavirus pandemic significantly curtailed the bill’s primary revenue stream: corporate activity taxes. Seemingly overnight, the bill’s Student Investment Account, or SIA, funding went from anticipated revenue of $500 million to $150 million.

In response, the Oregon Department of Education asked school districts to instead use their limited funds to focus on student mental health needs. Districts have had varying degrees of success.

In Forest Grove, the school district was able to keep nearly $95,000 in its allotment of funds for a district behavioral health and wellness coordinator, but funding for a full-time mental health care coordinator for the district’s K-8 students was cut. Spending reports submitted to the state also indicate professional development for staff relating to behavioral health and wellness was cut from Forest Grove School District’s SSA spending plan, as was district-wide staff training for suicide prevention, as required by the state.

For smaller districts, like the Rainier School District in Columbia County, less money meant stalled hiring of additional counselors during a time — thanks to the pandemic and recession — when students needed more mental health intervention.

In a progress report to the Oregon Department of Education, Rainier district officials said a major strategy in original implementation plans had to be put on hold. “The decrease in funding has allowed for us to only secure one out of the 2.5 FTE — full-time-equivalent employees — originally planned to provide increased mental health support and safety for our students, staff, and families,” the district noted in its progress report to the state. “Consequently, the need for mental health support has continued to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

District administrators in Rainier noted the virtual format “increased the need for mental, emotional, and social support for students and families.” The Rainier School District initially was slated to get $731,000, but received about $230,000 for the 2020-21 school year, state records show.

Despite that, the district was able to reduce its class sizes at the elementary level, allowing for small group instruction that wasn’t possible before.

Portland finds victories

Anecdotal state data show larger districts fared better with implementing plans than those with fewer students and smaller allocation amounts.

The state’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, went from an estimated allotment of about $39 million to $12.4 million.

Still, PPS was able to substantially increase the number of counselors and social workers during distance learning.

“We went to having 11 social workers to 42 social workers,” said Brenda Martinek, chief of Student Support Services for PPS. Every high school in the district now has a social worker available.

“That was cut from what we were anticipated to get but it’s still a very large amount of money and were thankful for that,” Martinek said.

But the reduction in funds didn’t come without tradeoffs. Martinek said instructional specialists had to be cut from the SSA spending plan.

“At the elementary level, every elementary school received half-time something,” she said. “They could have a qualified mental health provider or social worker. At the middle school level, we focused on reducing the student-to-counselor ratio, so every middle school was either able to keep their counselor and redirect funds to another area, or add another counselor.”

PPS also hired three certified alcohol and drug counselors.

“It was perfect timing that we received the money in July and we were very successful in hiring most of those positions and were able to hit the ground running with virtual supports,” Martinek noted.

For Portland students, the Student Success Act was a measurable solution to a growing need for mental health services.

The district’s social workers made contact with almost 6,000 students and families during the first six months of school, according to Martinek. By late January, the district logged 2,337 parent check-ins and consultations and 750 student check-in or skill building exercises.

Social workers and counselors responded to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues for 2,300 students, mostly through teletherapy.

“We’ve also provided about 370 students with some kind of short-term counseling,” Martinek said.

“There’s just no way we would have been able to serve that many students with only 11 full time (social workers)” she said. When students were still learning from home, staff had to get creative.

They did sidewalk talks at students’ homes, checked on families with phone calls and worked nights and weekends if needed.

Results vary across Oregon

Across the state, schools and districts each used Student Success Act funds differently. Spending plans ranged from hiring more counselors, to investing in mathematics support, to adding recess monitors and in one district, asbestos removal in classrooms.

In general, districts that focused on hiring support staff saw more measurable outcomes and success.

In Tigard-Tualatin School District, administrators focused on wraparound services for students and families.

“We have this year, new (staff) whose positions are family partnership advocates,” said Traci Rose, a spokesperson for the Tigard-Tualatin district. “Those are positions that came out of Student Success Act. We were in a good position to prioritize those positions dedicated to our students and families and wraparound services.”

That district also was able to use Student Success Act money to helped provide child care subsidies for nine out of 10 elementary schools.

The expansion of services in Portland, Tigard and Tualatin hasn’t been the case statewide.

Other districts have reported a major roadblock in implementing the extra staff or supports initially planned. In Bandon, a tiny district serving roughly 675 students along the Oregon coast in Coos County, district leaders said plans for extra outreach and support for LGBTQ students were delayed until the next school year, but the district was able to reinforce its social-emotional learning component.

“The impact of COVID-19 and distance learning has had a significant impact on our ability to implement our (Student Investment Act) plan, although we are able to put several pieces in place,” district leaders noted in a journal entry as part of an Student Success Act progress report submitted to the Oregon Department of Education. “We have continued with the Conscious Discipline social-emotional self-regulation professional development at K-5 and have implemented a Student Support Specialist at each building (K-4, 5-8 and 9-12,)” the report notes. “That training has shown anecdotal evidence of supporting our K-5 students while making the transition from the spring school closure back to in-person learning, as well as helping students navigate ‘big emotions’ as they balance the added anxiety of COVID-19 protocols and concerns…”

Some rural districts still found success.

Jefferson School District reported incremental but noticeable differences, citing “more connectedness and social emotional support” thanks to a student support specialist and counselor.

The same went for Mosier Community School, a small, rural school situated in the Columbia River Gorge. The school was able to target reading intervention and literacy, even through a distance-learning model.

“Our targeted reading support has helped us reach the third-grade markers for reading proficiency,” the district’s progress update states.

The Mosier school used reading diagnostics via iReady — a distance learning curriculum and assessment software platform — to measure growth.

While progress reports have provided some insight into how districts are making use of Student Success Act dollars and working to improve outcomes for students of color, the bill’s tangible impacts might be difficult to immediately track. That’s because a key element for measuring success and outcomes was paused for a year.

Longitudinal performance growth targets — tools to measure student progress and growth — were initially a requirement of the act.

The performance targets were meant to be accountability safeguards, put in place to “avoid accountability pitfalls” like the ones seen in No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and other education initiatives. “Previous accountability measures sometimes centered more on ideals than achievable outcome improvement,” leaders at the Oregon Department of Education noted in initial guidance.

In August 2020, legislators relaxed those rules.

The state education agency maintains there are sufficient measures in place to track spending and outcomes.

“For the Student Investment Account (SIA), there are a number of accountability pieces in place to track SIA implementation impact over time,” said Scott Nine, assistant superintendent for ODE’s Office of Education Innovation and Improvement. “This includes impacts to students who have historically experienced academic disparities. Specifically, grantees are required to submit programmatic and financial progress reports, sharing implementation updates as well as track expenditures.”

Still, the state education agency said, given the past year’s catastrophic circumstances and the bill’s massive undertaking, seeing real progress will take time.

“We’re hopeful ODE has done things from the start of the bill’s implementation that either triage, respond, or seed foundational ideas about how ODE shrinks gaps, but re-centers what education systems are designed around,” Nine said.