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Richmond Schools To Fund Literacy Plan Through Federal Stimulus

Man gestures while speaking
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras at a 2019 school board meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Richmond School Board met for their first in-person general meeting since the beginning of the pandemic on Monday. At the event, board members focused on how to spend more than $123 million from the American Rescue Plan.

The majority of the money, $65 million, will go towards an ambitious three-year literacy plan proposed by Superintendent Jason Kamras. Under this plan, teachers will get additional literacy training, and schools will expand after-school and summer reading programs.

The goal is for all Richmond students to read on grade level by the end of third grade. Currently, only 56% of Richmond’s elementary and middle schoolers meet the state’s reading standards. That figure drops to around 30% for students with disabilities and English learners.

“Literacy is not only one of the most, if not the most, important skill that we can share with our young people, but we truly face nothing short of a crisis when it comes to this,” Kamras said Monday.

Of the $65 million

  • $29 million will go towards hiring reading interventionists, instructional assistants, a “literacy czar” and other staff; 
  • $10 million will fund training programs and certifications for current RPS teachers; 
  • $7 million will pay for instructional technology, library upgrades and other resources;
  • $19 million will be used to partner with the city and community organizations to create enrichment activities outside of regular school hours.

The plan was ultimately approved by 7 out of 9 board members, but it did face some criticism from members of the community who argued it took up too much of the incoming ARPA funds and suggested more of the money be used to improve school facilities.

Boardmember Kenya Gibson, who voted against the spending proposal, criticized the administration for not seeking enough public input while developing the initiative. The U.S. Department of Education required local school boards to seek “broad public input” when deciding how to use ARPA funds.

“We don’t fill this requirement by simply putting this up on BoardDocs and hoping that the community sees it and weighs in,” Gibson said. “What I’ve heard is that we’ve come to people with this literacy plan and said, ‘Do you like this plan?’ That’s very different from going to folks and saying, ‘How can we use $123 million?’ That question has not been asked.”

RPS Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp pushed back and said the decision to invest heavily in literacy was based on the public’s request to prioritize literacy in the district’s “Dreams4RPS” strategic plan. She also mentioned the literacy plan was informed by RPS reading teachers and staff.

The rest of the money RPS is getting from the ARPA, around $58 million, will be used to maintain investments the district made using earlier rounds of federal stimulus. Those include facilities investments, new technology, staff hirings and funding for social-emotional supports.

On top of the incoming ARPA money, Richmond schools anticipate receiving additional funding from the state. Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced plans to allocate $250 million to upgrading and maintaining schools’ air filtration systems. Kamras said he’s also looking to the federal infrastructure package, which is still moving through Congress, for more funds.