Catholic schools get boost with $8.5 million in aid

Kristy Dunn 
Fifth-grade student Kimberly Esquivel, 11, tutors kindergartener Luis Hurtado, 6, June 8 using worksheets from MyLexia during summer school at St. Theresa School in Little Rock.
Kristy Dunn Fifth-grade student Kimberly Esquivel, 11, tutors kindergartener Luis Hurtado, 6, June 8 using worksheets from MyLexia during summer school at St. Theresa School in Little Rock.

Catholic schools in Arkansas received $8.5 million in federal money this year to help meet the unprecedented demands of educating students during a pandemic. 

Twenty-three of the 28 schools applied for funds through the Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools (EANS) program, part of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. The fund was one component of the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 (CRRSA Act), which provided $2.7 billion toward EANS. According to the U.S. Department of Education, money was awarded to each state governor to assist non-public schools affected by the pandemic. 

From March 11-29, schools were allowed to apply for EANS funds, which were allocated based on their student population and the poverty level in their counties. Dobbins said of the five Catholic schools that didn’t receive funding, some chose to not apply and some were not eligible to apply because they participated in the second round of the federal loan Paycheck Protection Program.  

“I mean it’s huge,” said Ileana Dobbins, associate superintendent of Catholic schools. “Think about that when schools shut down in March (2020), everybody was on their own to figure out how to fight COVID as far as cleaning supplies, all the different things that you were gonna do. At that time we were trying to build barriers, the Plexiglas, spacing, did we need more desks? So everybody had to figure that out in their own budgets.” 

The grants, which varied by school, were awarded in the spring. Schools have until September 2023 to use the funds. 

Money is not disbursed to the schools all at once but is kept with the Arkansas Department of Education. Schools then apply to use their funds for reimbursements or new purchases, but all must be related in some way to the pandemic. This includes technology, protective equipment or more education for students and teachers. 

EANS money cannot be used for salaries, direct hiring or capital improvements. Schools can, however, bring in additional workers, like nurses, through a third party. Reimbursement for items purchased last school year because of the pandemic can go back into a school’s budget.

“We did encourage our principals, if you got reimbursements and you had some extra money in your reimbursements, consider giving your teachers an extra bonus at the end of the year to help,” Dobbins said. 

Thanks to $45,000 in EANS money, 55 students in kindergarten to eighth grade at St. Theresa School in Little Rock attended a special summer school June 7-30. Principal Kristy Dunn said her teachers received “a just and fair salary” to run it and online programs to assist with online learning, reading and math. 

“It’s uncomparable. No student had to pay; our school didn’t have to pay,” Dunn said. “… Those students needed it, we could tell that from the data. We could tell they experienced learning loss.” 

The school, with 80 percent of students on financial aid, struggled with distance learning.

“This COVID money is life-changing for these students,” Dunn said, adding the parents likely would not have been able to afford tuition for a program of this caliber.

St. Theresa can use up to $315,000 total. Dunn said they’re using funds for multiple needs including expenses for 6,000 masks, a nurse on campus once a week and two years of teacher education through Educate LLC. 

Myndi Keyton, principal at Christ the King School in Fort Smith, is also taking advantage of the Educate program for her teachers. The school has $331,000 of available funds and will spend about $150,000 on Educate for two years. Since its founding in 2000, the New York City-based company has coached teachers based on individual school needs. 

“For our school, we’re kind of focusing on looking at our NWEA Map Test scores. Identifying gaps that were in place because of the pandemic and things that happened while the kids weren’t in school,” Keyton said, and revising curriculum to make sure students do not fall behind. “It’s just a really once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us in Catholic schools, that’s available to public schools all the time because they have federal funding. This is going to help our teachers be better teachers and get mentoring they wouldn’t normally get and address those learning gaps” with students. 

Catholic High School in Little Rock received qualified for about $1.1 million in available funds, using $158,000. One of the more significant purchases was a 50-by-50-foot tent for outdoor dining and classes. 

“Lunch time is one of the most vulnerable times in terms of transmission of the virus. Obviously we had to spread the kids out, and we just simply do not have enough large space under one roof to do so,” principal Steve Straessle said. “We didn’t want to bring them to classrooms to further isolate them from their friends.” 

The school also requested funds for more lab materials, such as microscopes, and robotics to allow students to spread out. 

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Aprille Hanson Spivey has contributed to Arkansas Catholic as a freelancer and associate editor since 2010. She leads the Beacon of Hope grief ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

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