Student success coaches to support marginalized students and families, smaller class sizes, tutoring, and online learning are among the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) initiatives that will be covered by millions in federal COVID relief funding. School Board members unanimously approved a plan on September 2 for using the federal dollars, or ESSER funding. 

In the past, some community members, School Board members, staff, students and a district committee have called for the district to establish a cultural liaison position to specifically work with students and families of color. The student success coaches will have a broader assignment, connecting with students and families of color, low-income families, immigrant families, those experiencing homelessness and those facing mental health impacts. They will also help with family engagement activities. The initiative will cost about $679,000, out of total ESSER funding of about $5.3 million. 

Asked why WAPS gave the student success coaches  a broader job description than being dedicated to supporting students and families of color, Superintendent Annette Freiheit said that she listed students and families of color first in the ESSER plan, and that there were students who were not of color facing homelessness, socio-economic challenges and other disadvantages. “So we wanted to make it broad enough to serve students who do need the additional support, but we’ve also highlighted students and families of color to make sure they receive the supports that are needed,” she said. 

Several community members spoke in favor of a more specific focus on students of color at the September 2 School Board meeting. Community member Mary Jo Klinker said in a public comment that she wants one of the student success coaches to specifically serve students of color. Community member Allison Quam agreed. Community member Gregory Johnson also advocated for funding cultural liaisons. 

In contrast, School Board member Jim Schul said at the September 2 meeting that he felt WAPS was following through on supporting underrepresented people in the district, noting he had said in the past that the district would. “And my statement … was, ‘We’re going to address this. This is something we’re going to do.’ Here it is. We’re addressing this,” he said. 

School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said she feels the plan is comprehensive. “It covers all our students, which I think is an important piece,” she said. Denzer asked if student success coaches were synonymous with cultural liaisons or any other position to address student needs. Freiheit nodded her head yes in response. 

Schul moved to approve the plan, with the condition that Freiheit update the School Board on hiring, such as how many student success coaches are hired and who is chosen to fill the positions. 

School Board member Michael Hanratty asked what Freiheit wants in the first draft of the job description of the student success coaches. Freiheit said the success coaches’ duties would include directing students to resources, helping families understand the school system, telling district leaders about barriers for students and families and helping with family engagement activities. In the future, Freiheit said, she imagines someone in a social worker-type position may lead a new student success department and connect students with student success coaches. 

School Board member Karl Sonneman went further, saying he would like the district to have a director of diversity. “So far, that is not part of this, as I see it. But I will continue proposing it or advocating for it. But I think that’s kind of the idea. The way it’s set up, frankly, the more I see it, it fits the idea of the director of diversity I advocated for,” he said. 

A director of diversity position is not off the table, Freiheit said. “This is a starting point, but we see this growing and evolving as we get better,” she said. 

Apart from student success coaches, WAPS plans to spend about $793,000 on addressing learning loss from the pandemic, with smaller class sizes, a science specialist at the elementary level and more tutoring opportunities; $1.35 million on its online learning program; $385,000 on social-emotional learning supports, such as a social and emotional health screening tool; $530,000 on services for students in the special education and English Learner programs; and $300,000 on language arts curriculum, among other items. 

School Board member Steve Schild asked how the district would determine which classes would become smaller. By looking at the class size targets set by the School Board, Freiheit said, WAPS recognized another fourth grade class at Washington-Kosciusko, extra physical education, music and art classes for those students and an additional class for art at the high school were needed. 

Schild asked what would happen with the initiatives in the plan, once the district uses all the ESSER funding. WAPS will evaluate the initiates as they happen, Freiheit said, to determine which are working. For those that are successful, she said, the district will then have to figure out how to cover them through the district’s general fund.