Fulton Co. Schools To Spend $90 Million To Boost Literacy

Georgia schools are set to receive $4 billion in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan recently signed by President Joe Biden. Fulton County Schools, the state’s fourth-largest school district, will receive more than $168 million. About $25 million will go toward expanding Fulton’s CTAE (Career Technical and Agricultural Education) program. The district has allocated $28 million for textbook adoption. The bulk of the money—$90 million—will go toward academic programs, especially improving literacy.

A ‘Once in a Lifetime’ Chance?

As part of the plan, called ‘Every Child Reads,’ each of Fulton’s 59 elementary schools will have a literacy coach and a reading-dedicated paraprofessional. Teachers and administrators will be trained on research-based literacy practices. The school system will also use ARP funds for textbook adoption and expanding its career-tech education program.

“We will never in our lifetime again get this infusion of money to be able to do something as transformative as necessary as this,” said Cliff Jones, the district’s Chief Academic Officer. “So when you look at a student’s ability to not just read on grade level, but to comprehend and have access to content, really what you’re doing is you’re giving them access to opportunities in the world.”

The ‘Every Child Reads’ program will focus on the five pillars of reading as defined by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The district has invested in a program called LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) as part of the training process. Jones says one of the program’s biggest goals is to ensure that 95% of Fulton students reading at or above grade level.

“This isn’t about just a third-grade reading at or above grade level,” he says. “We’re really looking at a K-12, literacy, culture, and impact here with this.”

Educators often use third grade as a deadline for students to read at or above grade level. Students typically go from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ during that year.

The plan is divided into two parts: instruction for grades P- 5 and grades 6-12. Each of the district’s 59 elementary schools will have a literacy coach and a literacy-focused teacher’s aide.

“We’re also putting together an intervention team, [so] as schools begin to progress, any types of gaps, these intervention teams will be able to go in and provide additional support,” said Ron Wade, the district’s Human Resources Director.

Cliff Jones says small group instruction will be critical in grades 6-12 also. He says teaching reading to older students will include a heavy emphasis on vocabulary development.

Differentiating Resources

Data show Fulton students progressed on average 5.3 months in reading and 7.3 months in math during the pandemic, compared to 9.5 months they would make during a regular school year. (Students had the option to learn in-person or virtually during the 2020-21 school year. 55% of them participated in face-to-face instruction.) Jones said learning loss for Fulton’s African American and Hispanic students was 2-5 times higher than for other students. Given that discrepancy, Jones said the district will offer different approaches, depending on students’ needs.

“That includes a differentiated response in terms of monetary allocations, that includes a differentiated response in terms of human capital, and all of those differentiated response strategies are around meeting kids where they are to get everyone to 95% [of students reading on grade level],” Jones said. “Everyone doesn’t need the same strategy to do that.”

Ron Wade said buy-in among administrators is key to the program’s success.

“I think the biggest part of this is the leadership development piece,” he says. “Leaders will basically set the tone and drive the work in schools, so we have to make sure we’re investing in that.”

Like many metro Atlanta districts, Fulton is also offering summer programs to help address pandemic-related learning loss. About 15,000 of the district’s 90,000 students have signed up for summer school. Fulton will use $1.8 million in CARES II funds to pay teachers and other staff members who work during the summer.

A two-year training program for teachers begins in January. However, Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney recently told the board some are getting a jump on things.

“I can assure you that teachers are trying to get ahead of the curve right now and they’re learning on their own,” he said.

How Else Is Georgia Spending Federal Aid?

Some metro Atlanta school districts are still deciding how to spend money from the American Rescue Plan. Atlanta Public Schools is surveying community members for feedback before making final plans. APS is set to receive more than $201 million in ARP funds. The district has proposed spending federal money (which includes funds from CARES I and CARES II) on the following:

  • Extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes.
  • Summer learning and enrichment through an Academic Recovery Academy.
  • COVID-19 surveillance testing.
  • 8 Student Support Specialists.
  • Contracted nursing services.
  • Universal screener for Behavioral and Mental Health.
  • 10 additional Psychologists.
  • 25 additional School Social Workers.
  • $14 million distributed to schools for academic intervention

The Georgia Department of Education will receive about 10% of the state’s total allocation. The department recently released its plans for spending the money. For one, it will develop an Office of Rural Education and Innovation that will “work with low wealth school districts with low student populations in high poverty/distressed regions of Georgia.” Other highlights include increasing high-speed internet bandwidth in schools, funding a state-level media specialist, and delivering quality summer learning enrichment programs.