All local schools returned to fully in-person learning in 2022. | Polk County Public Schools

Help is on the way for many Polk County students who lost critical learning opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school board passed a slew of agenda items to spend nearly $30.5 million in federal aid on nine programs ranging from new books for civics classes to weekend bootcamps for students struggling with math, science and reading. There is also funding to supplement summer and after-school programs.

The money is part of the “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund” package to help school districts address learning losses following the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic closed schools in the final months of the 2019-2020 school year, forcing students and teachers to shift to online learning. A hybrid approach was implemented in 2020-2021.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the federal government earmarked $7 billion for the Sunshine State when it established the ESSR program in March 2021. Of that, $6.3 billion was allocated to local school districts and $704 million was reserved for state-level activities. Polk County’s share was $30.5 million.

Florida’s state plan – approved by the U.S. Department of Education in December 2021 – calls for:

  • Addressing and mitigating learning loss through targeted interventions.
  • Closing achievement gaps through high-quality after-school and summer programming.
  • Building student resiliency by enhancing student services and wraparound supports.

After-School and Weekend ‘Bootcamps’

Polk County Public Schools will spend nearly $2 million in the upcoming school year on after-school and weekend “bootcamps” focused on reading, math, science and civics.

Students will be able to attend intensive group sessions for up to eight Saturdays as they prepare for state-mandated standardized tests and end-of-course exams. There will be 46 school sites, each with two teachers and one para-educator for instruction, as well as one administrator and one school safety guardian.

“It is anticipated that each of the 46 sites will host up to 30 students each year for a total of 2,760 students served by the program,” the school district plan states.

The program’s goals include addressing the “disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on the student populations … experiencing homelessness, and children and youth in foster care.”

Summer Learning Programs

The district’s regular summer programs run from June 7 to 29. They include:

  • “Extended school year” programming for students with special needs.
  • An elementary program open to all third graders who scored 1 out of 5 in reading and language arts on the spring Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).
  • A secondary program open to middle school and high school students who failed core courses and need to recover those credits.

Most students started participating this week. Parents who want to know more should contact their schools to inquire about those programs.

In addition, Andrew Baldwin, senior director of the district’s office of federal programs, said the district will be providing new summer learning camps focused on:

  • Early literacy for students entering kindergarten through third grade.
  • Civics for middle schoolers.
  • Algebra for incoming ninth graders and biology for incoming tenth graders who will take end-of-course exams in those subjects next year.

The program may be very limited this summer, if the district is able to offer it. Baldwin said the additional summer learning camp program dates have not yet been selected, as the district is in the process of selecting partner agencies for the first-year implementation of the project. There is $2.25 million set aside to pay for teachers’ salaries and benefits, provide supplies and cover any ancillary costs. 

“It is anticipated a small number of agencies will apply/be chosen to participate in this year’s Summer Learning Camps, and act as a pilot program for future expansion during the summer of 2024,” Baldwin said in an email. Partners may include charter schools.

PCPS spokesman Jason Geary said the Summer Learning Camps program is still under development because the requirements outlined in grants are very complex.

“There are many stipulations and requirements that must be met before the program can be launched,” Geary said. “If we are delayed, we will host the Summer Learning Camps initiative during the 2024 summer season.”

Kindergarten Readiness Camps

During an April workshop, Superintendent Frederick Heid said the district had brought back a kindergarten-readiness camp, with enrollment nearly tripling this year.

The district hosted about 325 students at 12 locations last summer. This year, officials said they have approximately 950 students attending 24 sites.

The kindergarten readiness camp, which is already full, began Monday and runs through June 29 at specific elementary schools in Polk County from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

“Kindergarten is a huge step in a child’s life, and this camp will help make that big change a little easier,” Heid said. “Our experienced, certified teachers will use fun activities and learning experiences to prepare these soon-to-be kindergarteners for success in the classroom and beyond.”

Nearly 130 teachers are working at the camps. Students must have their own transportation. No school uniforms are required. Breakfast and lunch are provided free of charge for all students.

According to a report issued this week by the United Way of Central Florida and GiveWell Community Foundation, kindergarten readiness has been a top concern for local parents. Only 41% of Polk County children were ready for kindergarten in 2021-2022 compared with 46% in 2019-2020, based on an assessment administered to young students during the first 30 days of school.

The United Way-GiveWell Community Foundation study pointed to a lack of affordable early childhood education and childcare programs as a potential cause. The increased capacity of programs this summer is intended to help address that gap.

Civics Books and STEM Teacher Training

A “Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative Grant” of $376,428 addresses “learning loss among all students” in the hope of supporting and reinforcing Florida’s Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative. The district plans to buy textbooks for the middle school civics course that is mandated by the state and supplemental standards-aligned curricula for any grade level.

A Targeted Math and STEM Experiential Activities Grant of $1.5 million supports “mathematics acceleration with a focus on closing the achievement gap and mitigating the impacts of learning loss in math content.”

“PCPS consistently scores below the state average on the FSA Mathematics in grades 3-8 and the Algebra 1 (end-of-course exam) … and the SSA Science in Grades 5 and 8,” the description reads. “The goal is to close the current gap between Polk County and the state average for each end-of-year assessment.”

Test scores show that, in Florida, 58% of the state’s third graders performed at or above grade level in math in 2022. Polk County fared a bit worse than the rest of the state with 51% of third graders scoring at or above grade level.

In spring 2022, only 35% of the more than 90,000 ninth-graders who took the end-of-course algebra exam in Florida scored at or above grade level. Polk County did slightly better than the rest of the state with 39% of its roughly 2,600 ninth-grade test takers showing grade-level mastery, although it was still well below half.

Of the state’s 212,000 fifth graders who took the science test, 48% were at or above grade level. Polk County fared worse with only 37% of its 8,550 fifth graders scoring at or above grade level.

The district plans to provide professional development training for all math and science teachers in the district, including best practices for each grade level, with training for hands-on experiments and activities to help reinforce math and science principles. The funds will pay for salaries and benefits while teachers are at trainings, which usually take place during the summer or on teacher work days when students are not at school.

The funds will also pay for the costs of supplies and the state’s required allotment for charter schools. Those leading the trainings will receive a flat rate of $1,500, while teachers who participate in the training will receive a $600 stipend.

A separate $1.25 million grant will pay for new math textbooks, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Mathematics Major Tools of Instruction (GoMath/180)”.

It Begins With Reading

Reading is a major focus of the school district’s initiative, with $1.35 million aimed at “providing intensive interventions at schools with 50% or more of students in Voluntary Prekindergarten through grade 3 scoring below grade level in reading” and $2.178 million to supplement an existing tutoring program.

Reading is key to later success in school. | Polk County Public Schools

The district identified 51 elementary schools for the intensive intervention program by utilizing STAR Reading assessments (a computer program) results from the spring 2022 monitoring window and the Florida Standards Assessment for English Language Arts.

State-approved materials will be bought for students. Professional development will be provided to teachers, literacy interventionists, coaches and administrators, using State Regional Literacy Directors. Books and materials will also be purchased for this corrective reading curriculum. Heid said this program is expanding to 40 additional schools.

Of the state’s 210,300 third graders who took the English Language Arts test in 2022, 53% read at or above grade level. In Polk County, only 48% of third graders could read at or above a third grade level.

The ESSR tutoring supplement provides direct student tutoring by deploying trained tutors to classrooms throughout the district and aligns with a state program.

“The goal is to provide targeted individual or small-group tutoring and other student-level instruction and support to improve grade level reading by the end of third grade,” the agenda states. “The target student populations are the lowest 15% of students … Schools will prioritize K-1 students when targeting students to participate.”

During an April 25th work session, Baldwin explained that there were two types of ESSR funding – some grants must be spent by the end of September, while others end on Sept. 30, 2024.

“The most important date is the day when it ends and we can no longer utilize those funds after that date,” Baldwin explained to School Board members.

Public Complaints

Despite the federal government approving the state’s plans and the state approving of Polk County’s plans — which include line-by-line breakdowns of how much will be spent on each program — two members of the public complained at the May 9 School Board meeting about what they said were a lack of details about the funding. They called for the nine items to be tabled until they could get answers.

“This is a waste of taxpayer dollars these grants are comprised of. There has already been enough wishful curriculums and woke ideology for us to take a closer look at these programs,” said Bobby Dees of Winter Haven. “If you approve this spending without a good explanation of how it will be spent, I will contact the Florida education office and ask them to audit the Polk County School Board. The public deserves better than this. Do the right thing.”

State plans — and plans for every county — can be found on the Florida Department of Education’s website.

Glynnda White, a U.S. Army veteran, is listed as an officer on the Winter Haven 9-12 webpage, a group of highly conservative voters. She marched to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but said she remained outside. She has become a frequent speaker at Polk County School Board meetings, although she has no children in school. Because the money is tied to COVID recovery, at the May 9 meeting, White espoused several conspiracy theories, including that COVID was a “government-manufactured scary event,” and a “hoax.”  

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Florida Department of Health has reported almost 7.6 million laboratory-test confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and 88,505 deaths from the virus.

Florida Department of Health reports show that at least 88,505 Floridians have died from COVID-19. | Lakeland Regional Health

“If the spending is truly justified, let people see it and stand with you,” White told School Board members. “We don’t have to be dependent on the federal government. We just need to stop with the social experimentation and begin teaching our kids again.”

While White and Dees said Polk County Public Schools only lost five months of learning due to COVID, School Board member Kay Fields reminded the audience that schools closed from mid-March through the end of May 2020, reopening in August 2020 with a hybrid model of in-person and online learning — along with required mask use for those at schools — throughout the 2020-2021 school year.

Heid added that the school district has done its due diligence to highlight the costs of each program. In addition, state DOE officials have approved their plan.

“The reality that our school district continues to rank 52nd out of 67 school districts in English language arts, I think, speaks volumes (for) the need for us to continue to push academics throughout the summer to prevent learning loss,” Heid said.

The School Board passed the spending measures 6-1, with member Rick Nolte, who was endorsed by Winter Haven 9-12, the lone dissenting vote. He asked no questions about the measures during the April 25th work session or the May 9th board meeting.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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