Students at McCall School in Center City in 2022. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

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The bright blue facade of the William Hunter School in Kensington evokes the colors of the Puerto Rican flag waving from a tree one block from campus. The surrounding neighborhood includes neatly managed rowhomes and new construction, right next to peeling brick and vacant lots. 

When the School District of Philadelphia received a windfall in the form of COVID relief money, Hunter Principal Heather Mull Miller breathed a sigh of relief. 

“It felt like a massive infusion of cash,’’ Mull Miller told Billy Penn. “To have a line on your budget that starts with a two and there’s a comma in there is like — you get really excited about, ‘What can we do with all this money?’” 

Schools across Philadelphia have used the $1.1 billion awarded to the district in the latest round of pandemic relief to increase small-group instruction, expand extracurriculars, and add administrative support for teachers.

But the money expires in 2024, leaving principals facing a return to lean budgets — and a likely loss of staff.

“I hope that the data will show that those positions made a difference so that somebody somewhere can give us money from somewhere else,” said KaTiedra Argro, principal of John Barry Elementary School in West Philadelphia.

Barry’s spongy playground draws visitors even on quiet Sunday afternoons. The school, where 94% of students are Black and 9 of 10 are considered low-income, currently offers a karate club that enrolls more than 100 students and is intensely popular.

“Kids [will] have a doctor’s appointment, and their parents will say they wanted to come to school because they got karate,” Argro said. COVID relief funds, she said, have been a “game changer” in allowing her to budget things like this without making too many compromises. 

“Before principals had to make the decision of: Am I buying another teacher to instruct students or am I going to keep the money to afford after-school programs?” Argro said. 

At Hunter, where three-quarters of students are Hispanic and 88% are classified as economically disadvantaged, principal Mull Miller said her priority returning from virtual instruction was to build a sense of belonging for students. She channeled some of her allocated COVID relief funding to before- and after-school programs. 

To make the commitment manageable for teachers, Mull Miller split the extracurricular time into six-week cycles and ran 15 clubs during each cycle. These clubs ranged from physical activities such as basketball or running to creative academic supports such as math combined with Pokemon or crochet. 

Hunter received about $220,000 in learning support funds for the 2021-22 school year and $110,000 for the current academic year. The money came from the district’s third COVID relief grant, distributed in March 2021. That funding differed from earlier pandemic assistance, said Uri Monson, who served as Philadelphia’s deputy superintendent of operations before leaving to join the Shapiro administration. 

The two previous relief grants were really “about survival,” Monson said, while the most recent was designed to provide three years of augmented funding to help schools get back on track following pandemic learning losses. That likely leaves schools across the district with only one more year of extra funding.

William Hunter School in Kensington. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn and Temple’s Logan Center)

With the extra funds, finally ‘I can be the instructional leader’

A high metal fence blocks the grounds of Kensington’s John H. Webster School from the surrounding rowhomes and corner stores, mirroring the locked bars on the church across the street. 

Nearly 90% of Webster students are considered economically disadvantaged; Hispanic or Latino children make up over half the student body, and Black students make up about a third. Principal Sherri Arabia knows her school is important to its students’ lives, and the COVID relief funding gave her more power to help make it better, she told Billy Penn. 

“I’m going to be totally honest,” Arabia said. “This is the very first year me as the principal feels that I can be the instructional leader in this building.” 

She used this year’s COVID relief funds to add a school climate manager. The position is tasked with handling student discipline, but can carry a wide portfolio of other duties, from training staff members on restorative practices to handling safe arrival and dismissal. 

The say principals had in allocating the additional staff funding has varied. Counselors, psychologists, and nurses were lacking at many Philly public schools, so the district used some of the COVID relief money to shore up those positions, then allocated them across the city according to need. 

Search for how much COVID relief money went to a specific school

Enter a name into the table below to find information on COVID relief funds for a specific district school.

For the 2021-22 school year, each principal was additionally able to make their own decision about two new positions. This academic year, each principal got one new position, with the rest distributed based on enrollment volume and income level.

For Webster, it’s been a blessing. “I am able to get into all of my classrooms every single day. I am able to provide the support I need to my teachers, to my students,” Arabia said.

John H. Webster School in Kensington. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn and Temple’s Logan Center)

The data showed students who had early reading instruction through virtual school had fallen behind, so Arabia hired two interventionists. They provided extra support for all students with intensive academic needs, and kept an extra close eye on the students in last year’s first and second grade classes. 

“Our students were basically in kindergarten and first grade during the COVID years, so they missed a lot of their phonemic awareness and their phonics instruction, and they missed a lot due to being home,” Arabia said. 

Several principals followed Arabia’s first-year strategy and bought reading or math interventionists to facilitate small-group instruction. Others adopted her second-year move of adding administrative positions, like an additional assistant principal or a school climate manager, to focus on addressing student behavior through a positive, relationship-building lens. 

At Barry in West Philadelphia, Argro added a special education teacher, lowering the average caseload from 20 to 13. She also hired a second assistant principal. 

Knowing she could lose some of these positions as budgets tighten this year and next, Argro is now focused on providing professional development and intentional feedback to existing teachers, to build up their capacity to run small-group sessions. She’s also training her administrators to take on additional duties in case she has to drop back down from two assistant principals to one. 

Balancing meaningful extracurriculars and meaningful learning supplies 

Barry is back to running extracurricular programming that goes from either September to December or January to June, principal Argro said, with activities ranging from gaming to yoga to chess.

But last year, as Barry teachers dealt with the rocky transition back to in-person learning, many didn’t have the capacity to run extracurriculars. That issue was mirrored across the city, said Monson, the former deputy superintendent — so no school in the district actually used all its 2021-22 learning support funds for out-of-school programs.

That meant principals had the opportunity to use that funding to buy instructional materials at the end of last school year.

At Hunter, Mull Miller used leftover learning support funds to replenish classroom libraries, and also bought new hands-on, inquiry-based science curriculum.

“In a regular year, we typically account for about a 10% loss of the books in our classroom libraries, and I budget to make sure that we can replace those at that rate,” Mull Miller said. “But when we were having the pandemic and then during hybrid learning, the loss was tremendous.”

Barry Elementary School in West Philadelphia. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn and Temple’s Logan Center)

At Webster, Arabia’s list of new materials included math kits, classroom library books, workbooks to help families practice skills over the summer, PSSA test prep resources, phonemic awareness resources for k-2 students, professional development materials for teachers to improve writing instruction, and desktop computers for the digital literacy classroom. 

Strategic planning goes into what materials principals decide to purchase, Argro explained.  

“When we have money left, the money really goes into essentially what we need for next year. We’re not just like, ‘Oh, let’s buy paper and sticky notes because we like it,’” Argro said.

“We’re really buying stuff that we really think can have impact — just in case we don’t have the money for the next school year.” 

This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.