Nearly $400 million in federal stimulus is coming to the Boston Public Schools. It’s a lot of money for a district with a total budget of only $1.3 billion — and a rare opportunity to change the lives of thousands of children. Spending the money wisely will require officials to think creatively, take some chances, and find a way to sustain any successful new programs in the long term.
Right now, the school district is only at the start of a public engagement process over how it should divide up the federal dollars. But Superintendent Brenda Cassellius seems to view the stimulus as a chance to jumpstart a strategic plan she put together before the pandemic.
There is plenty of good stuff in that plan about closing achievement gaps and ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources across schools. And in an interview with the editorial board, Cassellius made a good case for one possible use of the one-time stimulus money: building a library in every school that doesn’t have one. She said she would ask the next mayor to add a recurring sum to the BPS budget, equivalent to 5 or 10 percent of the $400 million federal infusion, so the district could sustain any new initiatives launched with the stimulus money — say, funding the salaries of the librarians in the long term.
And if the libraries got built, Cassellius said, she could also imagine asking the business community to refresh the book collection when it ages.
It’s a good model: Make an upfront investment in an important new initiative with stimulus money and find a way to keep it going in the long run.
But while new libraries and other facility upgrades are a fine idea, the district can go even bigger.
One possibility: tutoring. Volunteers who occasionally show up at schools are not all that effective. But there is strong, gold-standard research on the effectiveness of what’s known as “high-dosage” tutoring — a tutor meeting with one or two students on a consistent basis.
Brown University professor of education and economics Matthew Kraft and Match Education founder Michael Goldstein argued in a recent brief for the Brookings Institution that this tutoring should be treated like a class.
“It happens daily, for a full class period, during the normal school day,” they wrote. “Not after school, when kids are desperate to head home. Not once a week, where lag time reduces progress. Students receive a grade on their report card to send a signal to kids that this is like any other class.”
The district already has partners, like City Year, that provide in-school support for individual students. Stimulus money could be used to build out an even larger infrastructure — one that could be maintained, long term, at relatively low cost. The district could partner with local universities, for instance, to create a tightly managed program rigorously studied by academics. Or it could find a philanthropy willing to make a long-term investment.
Paul Reville, a Harvard education professor and former Massachusetts secretary of education, offers up a couple of other intriguing ideas. The state’s public schools are among the best in the nation, he says. But in places like Boston, they have failed to close stubborn achievement gaps and prepare kids for a high-skill, high-knowledge economy. “And I think that’s proof that we need to think more holistically about children, what’s going on in their lives, both outside of school and inside of school,” Reville said.
One possibility, he suggests: a system of “navigators,” where teachers, school secretaries, administrators, and other staff are assigned a handful of families to engage more deeply — contacting them regularly, getting to know them, identifying any health care or housing or nutritional needs, and referring them to services.
Keri Randolph, executive officer of strategic investments for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, spun up a navigator program in her district amid broad concern over staying in touch with remote learners amid the pandemic.
And the signal achievement of the effort, she suggested, has been the personalization of education. “So often, when school is running normally, we think of [children] in groups — this class, the first grade,” she said. “This is about each student, and where are they and what are their needs. That just made so much sense in this year, and I’m excited about taking that [forward]. . . . It’s just a game-changer.”
The program has deployed more than 5,500 navigators, who have had almost 400,000 family check-ins to date. Building something similar would be more complicated here, where unions are stronger and may balk at members taking on extra responsibilities. But Randolph said Nashville teachers have mostly taken to the idea, prizing the relationships with families. And, she said, stimulus money could be helpful in a city like Boston for building some of the technological infrastructure for a navigator program.
Another possibility floated by Reville, also focused on addressing both in- and out-of-school issues: a “children’s cabinet,” housed in the mayor’s office, that brings together high-level city, school, and nonprofit leaders to identify gaps in services or strengths to be built on — and coordinate a cross-sector approach.
There are dozens of children’s cabinets around the country, with all sorts of configurations. The Oakland version attracted philanthropic funding for a guaranteed-income pilot for local families dramatically ramped up Internet access, and has raised millions for scholarships and college savings accounts.
“I think it’s just this power of the collective,” said David Silver, director of education for Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf. “’Hey, we have this problem.’ Instead of like, ‘I hate the county, why are they doing this, or the city, whatever,’ it’s like, ‘No, you’re all right there, what are the things that we need to do, how do we make it happen?’”
City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu has proposed both a children’s cabinet and a version of the navigator program. And Acting Mayor Kim Janey told the editorial board that her administration is actually planning a children’s cabinet now, in conjunction with the school department, and wants to get it off the ground before the end of the school year.
Using stimulus dollars to build data capacity and even seed a small professional staff — so the cabinet is a true power center, with real capacity — would be wise.
There are other ideas worth considering. The mental health challenges for young people created by the pandemic have been vast. The district has added social workers and family liaisons to its budget. But it could look for more ways to partner with outside organizations and identify and serve students in distress. And then, how about setting aside tens of millions of dollars for college savings accounts for some of the district’s youngest students? Or helping recent grads, who may need remedial classes at college? Or providing one-time housing subsidies to attract teachers of color?
A commission of educators, civil rights advocates, and business leaders will advise the superintendent over the next couple of months on the development of a plan for the stimulus money.
Advocates like Vernée Wilkinson, director of the family advisory board for SchoolFacts Boston, have argued there should be more parent representation on the commission; Cassellius insists a separate parent engagement process will offer families a real voice. It must. Some of the best ideas emerge from the grass roots.
But the most important thing is to think big, and not settle for plans that were already in the works anyway. This big infusion of federal money is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The district needs to seize it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.