If you even remember the classic taffy brand, “Now and Later,” it’s probably because its quirky advertising narrative issued a challenge to develop a resource strategy satisfying your sweet tooth now and also anticipating future candy needs. For education leaders, allocating federal emergency relief funding similarly means targeting funds to address acute learning gaps and support workforce now, and at the same time, planning and implementing sustainable improvements tailored to serve your students and staff later in the long-term.

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) from federal stimulus packages including the American Rescue Plan (ARP) infused $190 billion into the American education system, disbursing federal dollars into districts based on a formula used for Title I. The feds did not, however, provide such a strict playbook governing allowable uses of the funds. Professional learning, an integral part of every district’s healthy and equitable future, is an eligible use of ARP.

#ESSER funding is temporary & presents a classic “now/later” planning and implementation challenge. Investing in proven “sweet spot” strategies can ensure success in your post-pandemic recovery efforts. Click To Tweet

Do not start from scratch

At Learning Forward, we regularly collaborate with members to encourage sharing best practices, strategies, and tangible ideas for smart planning and use of resources. In January 2022, we convened a panel of professionals from districts that are working from a strong shared playbook to invest ESSER dollars. What we are hearing from these leaders and others is do not start from scratch. Instead, leverage the plans, data, and successful professional development systems already in place in your district and build up from there.

Build from strength

Great examples of districts employing a “build from strength” approach are found in Charleston, S.C., and Louisville, Ky., where leaders are attuned to the needs of their communities and have identified some “sweet spots” in their professional development systems on which to build, using precious federal funding allocations.

Charleston County School District’s Chief Academic Officer Karolyn Belcher, shared that their long-term planning and goals haven’t changed; ESSER dollars – totaling about $160 million in a third allocation tranche – provide a unique opportunity to support priorities that were already very much at the heart of what Charleston wants for its students. Prioritizing Charleston’s Acceleration Schools and providing additional support to its Acceleration Schools team is a “nonnegotiable,” Belcher said, as is providing technical support to build capacity of teachers through the professional learning community.

Belcher shared a student achievement board presentation that underscores its commitment to Acceleration Schools. Learning Forward members have access to the full set of slides, downloads, and other resources here.

In Jefferson County, Kentucky, a support strategy to improve its respectable 87% rate of teacher retention has increased to 96% in two years. Professional Development Specialist Jennifer Colley said, “we were able to show our district how we were able to use our ESSER funds, and the funds before it, to build on this traction we had to retaining our teachers.”

Overall, Jefferson County ESSER funds have focused on:

  • Planning district professional development;
  • Mentoring academic instructional coaches; and
  • Expanding their teacher leadership mentoring program.


To provide additional support to build skills and confidence of new teachers, the district is using funds to bring in its best retirees as mentors, working with new teachers during the day. “These people provide another layer for teachers who need extra support to be confident so they have opportunities to improve,” Colley said. “The plan is that within the next two to three years, we are able to see these layers grow and we have capacity built among our teachers so they become outstanding leaders.”

ESSER funding is temporary and presents a classic “now/later” planning and implementation challenge. Great things can happen when you have the chance to build on your district’s strengths and resources. Investing in proven “sweet spot” strategies can ensure success in your post-pandemic recovery efforts.


Watch the full webinar on creating impact with ESSER funds here, or click here for more information about how Learning Forward helps systems implement research-based strategies to support this work.