Horry County Schools expects to use the latest round of federal pandemic relief funding to hire nearly 100 teachers focused on helping students make up the academic ground lost during the COVID-19 crisis.
The district is in line to receive $125.1 million from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. It’s the most recent and largest sum provided to the district in response to the pandemic. One of the requirements for receiving the money is that the district spend at least 20% of those dollars addressing students’ learning losses during the pandemic.
“We all know that the teacher is going to make the biggest impact in student learning,” said Candace Lane, the district’s executive director for middle schools. “We have a lot of things that have happened, no matter whether we’re dealing with poverty or whether we’re dealing with a pandemic. The educator in the classroom is going to have the most impact on a student.”
During Monday night’s school board meeting, district officials outlined their plans for the new teachers and how they would address the pandemic-related learning losses.
At the elementary level, the district plans to add a learning loss interventionist at each school. Those positions would serve any student with a learning gap or loss in reading or math. Traditionally, the elementary schools have provided interventionists to assist students with the most severe reading struggles. This program would expand those services.
“We know that many of our students lost time last year in terms of instruction,” said Mark Porter, the district’s executive director for elementary education. “So you have some of the lowest level readers to the highest level readers that may have gaps in instruction based on the instructional model that served them this past year. We want to be able to use these reading interventionists and math interventionists to serve all kids across the continuum, not just the lowest performing readers in the system.”
The staffing for this program would cost nearly $7.2 million over three years and the instructional materials would cost about $3.5 million.
Board member Howard Barnard questioned whether just one additional person per school would be sufficient. He asked that Porter reconsider that plan.
“I realize sometimes principals tell you what they think you’re trying to hear,” Barnard said. “But the principals tell me the more people we can get in the classroom with their teachers to do exactly this kind of thing will bring those students back up and allow for the greatest amount of catch-up.”
Board member Neil James also wondered how many additional staff the district could handle.
“What is the capacity that you can manage?” he asked.
Porter said bringing on the additional staff wouldn’t be a problem as long as the hiring pool is deep enough to fill the positions. He also said the staffing needs vary depending on the size of each school.
Horry County’s middle schools are requesting two additional teaching positions per school: a reading learning loss interventionist and a math learning loss interventionist.
Preliminary student testing data show the need for the additional resources, Lane said.
“We do have some significant learning losses,” she said. “And it’s just not for our bottom quintile students. … We have some of our honor students that there are some academic gaps. And these reading interventionists and math interventionists would be able to go in [and] work in those classrooms in small groups to assist those academic learning needs.”
The three-year cost for both the reading and math interventionists would be over $7.7 million for the middle schools.
The district also plans to purchase a digital reading program called Quindew. The cost for the program is $690,000 over three years.
“We’ve had some schools pilot that this year,” Lane said. “It’s been very, very successful. It’s all based on skills and standards. It’s not a remediation. It’s more of an acceleration. But it finds students where they are and then takes them where they need to go.”
Like the elementary and middle schools, the county’s high schools also plan to hire learning interventionists.
The high schools are requesting an additional teacher per school who would work with students who have reading or math gaps. The cost would be about $2.8 million over three years.
Along with those positions, the high schools also plan to hire work-based learning coaches for each school. The individuals in these positions would assist students who plan to enter the workforce immediately after graduation. The coaches would seek out opportunities for these students in their careers of interest.
“One of the areas where we work diligently in high school is for college and career readiness,” said April Scott, the executive director of secondary schools. “We know from much of our data that we have students who are entering the workforce, and we want to give them the skills and the community connections to have jobs directly out of high school and strengthen our local and state economy.”
The cost of these coaches would be nearly $1.2 million over three years.
For special education students, the district plans to spend $700,000 on a specialized high school curriculum that focuses on employability and transitioning into jobs after graduation.
Additionally, the high school plans include spending just over $2.3 million to hire graduation coaches for each school. These teachers would focus on making sure students graduate on time. That diploma, district officials said, improves students’ earning potential.
“Unfortunately, in our preliminary data we anticipate a drop in our graduation rate,” Scott said. “Students have really struggled. Families have struggled. Many of our students are working to help their families as a result of the pandemic.”
Board members expressed concerns about filling some of the positions highlighted in the plan.
They noted that their $767 million budget includes staff salary increases, which they hope will make the district more attractive to top teachers. But the competition can make finding teachers difficult.
“That’s a lot of new teachers,” board member Helen Smith said. “The students need them, but where are we going to get them from?”
Mary Anderson, the district’s chief human resources officer, said filling most of the elementary and middle school positions shouldn’t be challenging, but math and science teachers are at a premium and securing those hires would be more difficult.
“Obviously every district is looking at a similar plan,” Anderson said. “So we will all be vying for the same pool of educators.”
The sooner the county can approve the spending plan for the new federal money, district officials said, the sooner the district can compete for these teachers.
Superintendent Rick Maxey pointed out the turnaround time for developing the $25 million plan has also been difficult. Later this summer, the district will offer a survey to ask the public about its plan to spend this latest batch of federal dollars.
“This had a very short fuse on it,” he said. “Typical of everything related to the pandemic, [the message is] ‘By the way, here’s the money. You’ve got to come up with a plan.’ … We’ve been turning things on a dime like other school districts in the state, and we don’t want to be hurried about anything and have a slip in quality.”