Tulsa schools have a long shopping list of projects for when federal stimulus money makes it to Oklahoma.
Teachers and administrators are thinking of ways to put the pandemic-plagued 2020-2021 academic year firmly in the rear view mirror by making schools better than they were before.
“It’s so exciting,” said Ebony Johnson, chief learning officer for Tulsa Public Schools. “We’ve been through so much as a country, through the pandemic. And so to be able to get these dollars … it’s exciting because we get to dream.”
The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last month sets aside more than $120 billion for education. The money, including $81 billion already released, will flow from Washington to the states and then be dispersed to districts.
Then districts can pay for area-wide programs and direct money to schools like Monroe Demonstration Academy, a middle school in Tulsa.
“We’re able to partner with different organizations, we’re able to provide stipends for teachers who want to work during the summertime,” said Rob Kaiser, Monroe’s interim principal. “Funds that wouldn’t typically be available during a typical year are now available to us to do this work and do this work really well.”
Students at Monroe, like all students across the Tulsa public schools, will get access to free after-school care, starting this year. Free summer school day camps that include academics as well as activities like biking will be available, as well as free one-on-one tutoring for students who want it. And for high school seniors, there will be “Operation Graduation,” a program that will help students catch up in the evenings to ensure they can get their diplomas this year.
Planning for growth
Many of the plans are aimed at helping students get back up to speed, and deal with the academic and emotional fallout from remote learning. But they’re also the kinds of things school systems like Tulsa have wanted to do for a long time.
Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist said the federal money will “not only provide direct services to our children and families and make sure that we’re helping them to recover from the pandemic, but it’s also going to help us grow and expand.”
The school system will increase pay for teachers for working over the summer and providing tutoring, a move that school leaders say can help keep teachers working in the district.
The stimulus money from last month’s law is scheduled to last until 2024, though Gist hopes the changes it pays for will stick around even after the extra resources are used up.
It will be a while before it’s clear if the stimulus money can transform schools the way that some school leaders hope. But in the short term, some teachers are already breathing a sigh of relief.
Tulsa’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Laura Grisham, a speech and debate teacher at Monroe, said she’s not involved in deciding where the money goes but is energized by the prospects.
“Things like our summer school programming, like our after-school programming, being able to compensate teachers for their time, that stuff can’t happen without this stimulus money.”