Blackfoot targets learning loss among Native students

BLACKFOOT — The Blackfoot School District is devoting about $1 million in federal funds to a program geared largely toward combatting learning loss among its Native American students.

COVID-19’s impact on the student subgroup, which makes up over 10% of Blackfoot’s student body, was apparent to local leaders early on last school year, Superintendent Brian Kress recently told Idaho EdNews.

Like other Idaho school districts, Blackfoot, which borders the nearby Fort Hall Indian Reservation and serves some 4,000 students, waded through the pandemic-fraught school year knowing many of its most vulnerable learners weren’t getting the supports they needed.

Fast forward a year, and that reality has Blackfoot and other districts statewide tapping into millions in federal funds to create plans aimed at combatting learning loss tied to the pandemic.

The money is part of the feds’ Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program. Since COVID-19 hit, Idaho has received some $850 million through three rounds of ESSER funding.

Blackfoot’s piece of the pie: about $8 million over three payouts. Twenty percent of the district’s third and final payment of $5.1 million is earmarked for its recovery program focused largely on Native students, who have been hit hard during the pandemic in Blackfoot and nationwide.

The nation’s minorities, including Native Americans, have faced higher risks of getting sick and dying from COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control says, referencing a range of contributing factors, from healthcare accessibility issues to larger numbers of minorities living in crowded conditions.

Many of Blackfoot’s Native students were showing up for school and accessing remote learning resources less frequently than their peers, Kress and other leaders realized amid a surge in coronavirus cases last spring. Apprehension about contracting the illness through face-to-face learning was heavy among Native families, leaders found, yet many had issues accessing the district’s online learning options remotely.

The district outlined its recovery plan to the feds last month, and last week shared with EdNews how it hopes to help Native kids disproportionately impacted.

Watch for it: with support from an Education Writers Association grant, EdNews reporter Blake Jones is reviewing statewide plans for using ESSER funds. Look for more from him on the topic in the coming months.

Those plans took root last school year, when the district began holding weekly Zoom meetings with the Shoshone-Bannock tribes to pinpoint students in need of outreach.

As more students were identified, the district hired three “credit trackers” and assigned a school counselor to work with students after school during the school year and into this summer.

The tribes agreed to provide busing for students to attend, and the district hired four “Indian education staff paraprofessionals” to monitor students’ progress. Three additional credit trackers began working in the district’s middle school and two high schools as an added support for parents and students.

Meanwhile, the district launched tutoring programs for tribal students at Fort Hall’s Timbee Hall recreation center.

So far, the efforts have helped Native students recover 13 credits at the district’s Blackfoot and Independence high schools, said Joy Mickelson, Blackfoot’s director of federal programs. Fifty-five credits had been recovered at the district’s middle school as of Monday.

Getting on the same page with the tribes to help kids can be a challenge on any given year, Mickelson said. The district typically holds an in-person meeting ahead of the school year with students and families to assess needs.

Last summer, Mickelson was worried that the district’s choice to glean this year’s input remotely would hamper the feedback loop.

She was wrong, she said, and surprised when surveys sent to Native families yielded hundreds of responses that helped shape beefed up resources for learners.

In some ways, the pandemic — and the added federal funds that have accompanied it — have helped Blackfoot better address long-running challenges tied to educating its diverse student body, said Mickelson.

Kress stopped short of calling COVID-19 and the federal infusion of funds a “blessing in disguise,” but he did acknowledge the added support and focus it has brought to the district.

Kress also stressed the plan’s services for other student subgroups, from credit accrual outreach for English language learners to after-school programs for other students that started in September.

Finding ways to continue programs launched through federal funds that won’t last forever presents a tricky reality moving forward, Kress added. “Now it’s our challenge sustaining it all.”

Click here to read Blackfoot’s entire plan, and check back with EdNews in the coming months for more on the use of federal ESSER funds.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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