Wayne Walters, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS], calls himself “unapologetically student-first.”

In an attempt to elevate student voices, Walters has introduced an initiative that will allow PPS students to have a say in how a fraction of the state-received American Rescue Plan [ARP] Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief [ESSER] funds could be used. 

Called the Student-Led ESSER Funding, the initiative will be led by a 14-member ESSER subcommittee of the Student Voice effort in PPS. Members of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council [SSAC] and the Students and Government Council [SAGC] will work together to develop proposals for spending a part of the ESSER funds based on student needs. 

ESSER is a pandemic-driven federal effort to stabilize schools that included three rounds approved by Congress in 2020 and 2021.

PPS received about $100 million in ARP ESSER or ESSER III funding from the state to address pandemic-induced learning loss. Of this, $357,400 has been allocated for the Student-Led ESSER Funding. The district determined the amount based on giving every pupil from grades six through 12 a say over $25. The student proposals approved through this initiative by the district’s board may use the allocated ESSER dollars until the funds expire in 2024. 

“It’s so powerful when students are doing things for themselves. So it’s sort of like, by us, for us,” said Walters. 

In his 12 years at PPS, Allderdice High School junior Pavel Marin had not previously seen any student organization leading a budget initiative. Marin, who is also a member of the SSAC, said he not only looked forward to working with the central office and the superintendent but also collaborating at the school level with principals and other students. 

‘Safe spaces’ and mental health supports top students’ priorities list

The initiative was launched on Jan. 26 in three phases. As part of the first rollout phase, the subcommittee sent out an ESSER Funds Needs Assessment Survey across all 6-12 and 9-12 schools in PPS. 

About 1,750 students, out of a total of almost 7,000 PPS middle- and high-school students, listed their top three priorities for spending the money. Dominic DiNunzio, a junior at CAPA 6-12, wanted to see extra funds that could pay for his mock trial team to participate in competitions. At Allderdice, Marin said, many students wanted funding for sports. 

However, there are limited options for how the ESSER dollars can be used. Per federal guidelines, the funds may be used for investments in technology, social and emotional learning, mental health supports, college visits and field trips and educational supplies. The funds cannot be used for food, sports, sole funding of student clubs, local or national dues and uniforms. 

Most students surveyed want to prioritize mental health supports at their schools. 

Obama Academy junior Isaiah Trumbull, a member of the SAGC, said many students requested a designated “safe space” in schools where they could relieve their stress at any time during the day. 

Westinghouse student Andrea Edwards is working with the Student Voice at her school to increase awareness and investments in mental health after the recent shooting outside Westinghouse that left four students wounded. 

The Student Voice is a practice in which educators systematically and intentionally elicit student viewpoints for improvement purposes. At PPS, the SSAC and the SAGC are student-led committees under the Student Voice. 

Edwards wants her school to have more Black counselors and representatives who can meet their needs. “I feel we need more people that understand us, to really come in and help us,” she said. 

Diamond McGowan, a sophomore at Brashear High School, did not take the survey but also wished to see more counselors and social workers who can fulfill the emotional needs of students. 

“I feel like they often disregard our feelings and what we’re going through and just always focus on academic, academic, academic. But as a student, how am I supposed to be my best academically if emotionally I’m not alright?” she said. 

Students ask for better academic programs and more fun

With learning loss, the pandemic also brought a loss of career-planning opportunities for some students. 

DiNunzio said visiting colleges from different parts of the state would give them a chance to gauge their expectations. “For me, and I heard from my other classmates, people don’t know where they want to go for college,” he said. “And they might think … I really want to go here. But once they look at it, they see it’s not where they really want to go.”

At her predominantly Black school, Edwards wants to use the ESSER funds to visit more Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Ivy League schools. “​​Just to show our kids, it’s possible to get in there,” she said.

Allderdice junior and SSAC member Pavel Marin speaks at the Student Voice conference at Duquesne University on March 3, 2022. (Photo by Lajja Mistry/PublicSource)

Marin said many students requested investments in educational supplies and academic support. He said that the Student Voice is working on proposals to provide specific materials needed by each academic department such as supplies for special education, interactive tools or advanced technology. 

While the money cannot be used for sole funding of clubs, the Student Voice at Allderdice is finding other solutions such as bringing in speakers who can deliver informative sessions for various departments, clubs and classes, Marin said.

Edwards said she would like to see extra funds allocated for classes and electives in STEM fields or geared toward career goals. She said she thinks that as a neighborhood school with underprivileged kids, their needs differ from other magnet schools and should not be compared with theirs. 

“One thing that everyone has in common is, we know we need help in academic programming and we know we need help in educational supplies, and we know we want to have fun, too,” said Marin.

What is the Student-Led ESSER allocation for each school?

A 21-member Stakeholder Advisory Committee was formed in 2021 to provide recommendations and propose initiatives for the use of the ESSER III funds. Ashish Badjatia, a former PPS parent and a member of that committee, helped write the proposal for the Student-Led ESSER Funding initiative. 

Badjatia said the initiative was based on student feedback about the lack of funds for student organizations and clubs. Since then, the initiative has evolved, adhering to federal guidelines.

“My goal was to get the funding in the hands of the students and have them really go through the process of understanding how to make use out of this funding,” said Badjatia. 

The results from the survey were evaluated by school-based teams, which submitted proposals that were acceptable under board policies to the state Department of Education’s Division of Federal Programs to ensure that state regulations for the use of ESSER funds are followed. 

After reviewing the results, the ESSER subcommittee will send a report to each school-based team and school principal about what proposals they can send to the school board for approval. 

Walters said that even though the initiative is based on the enrollment numbers and $25 per student, the district is open to making adjustments if some schools require additional funding but have low enrollment. 

Paulette Foster of 412 Justice, an organization that focuses on economic, environmental and education justice, emphasized that the initiative should benefit students equitably. Foster, who served on the Stakeholder Advisory Committee to provide recommendations for the ESSER III funds, said students with the greatest needs should receive the most money. 

Errika Fearbry Jones, the superintendent’s chief of staff, said that while she hopes the schools stay within their budgets, the district is also evaluating other ways to address their needs, such as working with out-of-school providers who can offer programs or services. 

Currently, PPS has over 180 out-of-school providers that offer services in areas such as academic enrichment; career support; health and wellness; social, emotional and behavioral strategies; and leadership development. 

A way to address each school’s priorities

Many students found this initiative a useful method to address each school’s needs. Edwards said asking students for their opinions is a step in the better direction. 

For Trumbull, the value is the opportunity to make decisions about things that affect students in the district. “So often these decisions are made without student input. 99% of the time, they’re made by people who aren’t on the ground in schools, they don’t know what things are really like,” he said.

DiNunzio said he liked how students could get a diverse sense of needs through the survey and it was useful that each school could use money according to their priorities.

“At the end of the day, Brashear is gonna be different than CAPA, would be different than Allderdice and Obama … So it’s nice that we all get to have our own money that we get to spend,” he said.

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...