Fostering Connections in State Education Agencies with Communities of Practice

Logo type that reads National Center Communities of Practice

Summary of Impact

  • National Center created three Communities of Practice for state education agencies (SEA) in response to COVID-19 challenges
  • Participating SEAs gained capacity that has led to the development of new resources, programs, and even policies
  • The Communities of Practice will continue another year with new and returning SEAs

The National Comprehensive Center rapidly developed Communities of Practice in response to historic challenges.

In response to the historic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) initiated a call to action for state and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs) to leverage American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funding to accelerate learning recovery and promote equity in response to the pandemic. To this end, National Comprehensive Center (NCC) quickly designed and implemented three Communities of Practice (Communities) to help SEA teams work together, share promising practices, and promote recovery strategies.

The Communities focus on using APR ESSER funds to support evidence-based programming, embedding equity into school-improvement initiatives, and taking advantage of summer and afterschool time for additional learning opportunities (see sidebar). SEAs participating in the communities focused on applying the shared content and resources to situations in their SEAs, which led to implementation of new programs and policy change.

Three Communities of Practice

The Evidence-Based Interventions: Using ARP Funds to Accelerate Learning Community (EBI-ARP) supports the use of ARP ESSER funding, particularly the 20 percent set-aside for learning recovery, to implement evidence-based practices in schools and to identify sustainable sources of funding to support improved student outcomes.

The Strategic Use of Summer and Afterschool Set Asides Community (Summer-Afterschool) aims to help member SEAs promote strategic and sustainable use of ARP ESSER set-asides for summer enrichment and afterschool programming and to examine the lasting benefits of stimulus funding.

The Driving Toward Equity Through School Improvement Community (Equity) seeks to help SEAs and LEAs develop a shared understanding of equity in the context of low-performing schools and to learn about approaches to addressing disparities in educational opportunity and outcomes.

SEAs received support for problem solving and strategic planning through the Communities

The first cohort of the Communities operated between February and November of 2022. Teams from 16 SEAs participated, some in more than one Community. In each Community, SEA teams identified a problem of practice—a specific, actionable issue related to the Community’s topic. With guidance from NCC subject matter experts, SEA teams then developed action plans to address their chosen problem. Some of the issues SEA teams explored included:

  • monitoring LEAs for effective use of ARP ESSER funds (EBI-ARP);
  • applying equity indicators to situations in their state (Equity); and
  • providing supports and resources to LEAs in the implementation of high-quality summer and afterschool programs (Summer-Afterschool).

Each Community held four to six online sessions, bringing together NCC, SEA, and Regional Comprehensive Center (RCC) staff as well as national experts. They featured data-driven presentations and breakout discussions. Between sessions, SEA teams met internally, received individualized support from NCC Community leads, sometimes in collaboration with RCCs, and completed assigned work to build on the knowledge gained during the sessions.

I think one of my bigger takeaways was seeing this work as a systems issue...not thinking of the schools or districts as the problem, but seeing the system as the problem or issue that needs to be adjusted and reworked.
– RCC Representative in the Equity Community

SEAs gained knowledge and built connections through the Communities while working toward policy change.

The collaboration fostered within the Communities helped SEAs view challenges in a new way and ask better questions to reach more effective solutions. With knowledge gained, SEA teams created new resources to boost educator capacity and support learning recovery. In the Summer-Afterschool Community, for example, Minnesota and New York produced toolkits for local education agencies (LEAs) to develop and implement their own high-quality, sustainable summer programming. The programs have been designed to offer academic as well as social-emotional support. Additionally, as part of their work in the EBI-ARP Community, North Carolina held an in-person convening for all their LEAs. They shared two tools from Community leads that support review of ARP ESSER spending and tracking of LEA processes, including the ARP PATHS tool, which was developed by the Department and NCC. The progress being made through the Communities is even leading to policy change. For instance, an SEA team in the Equity Community has updated LEA resource allocation procedures and incorporated feedback from other team members to revise the initiative.

The increased interactions, collaborations, mentorships, and other cross-team connections are some of the biggest benefits team members get from the Communities. Having opportunities to connect with colleagues and build an expanded network has given team members access to more expertise and test-driven solutions to new and recurring challenges. The Communities are “breaking down the silos,” one member of the Summer-Afterschool Community noted—creating relationships that didn’t exist before.

We’re giving [LEAs] a tool to dream big about what’s possible and how they can meet the needs of kids and families.
–SEA Program Supervisor in the Summer-Afterschool Community

What’s next for the Communities of Practice?

The three Communities have been so successful that NCC is continuing the work for a second year. Twelve of the original SEA teams will continue, with new teams joining and continued participation from RCCs. The Communities will also offer additional ways for SEAs to engage in and learn from the work. They will build on the foundation of problem solving from the first cohort and address new problems of practice, intending to build on early successes and leading to sustainable policy changes that will improve outcomes for all students.

This story was developed under a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.

A copy of this Impact Story can be downloaded as a PDF file.