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How to use ESSER for afterschool programs

Published: March 7, 2023
3 elementary age students pose alongside a poster of their work, looking pleased with what they've accomplished.

ESSER can be used in a variety of ways, but 20% of ESSER III funds must be used to address learning loss. Here’s how you can use those funds to easily run afterschool and other enrichment programs that meet learning loss criteria.

Table of contents

    ESSER Overview

    ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) is federal funding handed down to state education agencies (SEAs), who in turn award those funds to local education agencies (LEAs) within the state.

    There are a lot of allowable uses for ESSER funds, and you can read more about those in our comprehensive guide to using ESSER funds

    In this article, we’re going to focus on using ESSER funds to address learning loss.

    A Work ED staff members leaning over to help an elementary-age student on their laptop during a Work ED program.ESSER funds can be used to address learning loss. Picture copyright: Work ED

    Using ESSER to address learning loss

    The third incarnation of ESSER was released as part of the America Rescue Plan act and is known as ARP ESSER or ESSER III. 

    While every version of ESSER allowed funds to be spent on the learning loss students suffered during the disrupted school years of the pandemic, ESSER III is unique in that it requires that at least 20% of awarded funds be used by LEAs to specifically address learning loss.

    LEAs can use ESSER funds to address learning loss in a variety of ways. These include:

    • Afterschool, summer and intersession camps, and other out-of-school enrichment programs

    • To provide individual tutoring to students

    • Dedicated time and resources to help with homework

    • Purchasing hardware (such as laptops and tablets) and software tools to aid education

    Here, we’ll be focusing specifically on afterschool, summer and intersession camps, and other out-of-school enrichment programs (because that’s what we do!).

    Using ESSER for afterschool and enrichment programs

    If you’re curious about using your ESSER funds for afterschool and enrichment programs, there’s a few things to bear in mind, as any plans for spending have to be justified and later reported on.

    Find partners that can provide their own high-quality staff. Given that staff shortages are rampant across the nation, it can be more straightforward to partner with companies that provide their own staff. While some LEAs are using ESSER funds for internal full-time staff expenses, becoming dependent on ESSER funds for operating costs could be tricky when the funding eventually runs out. Do the calculations and weigh up the cost of investing in afterschool programs staffed by third parties—chances are it’s more cost effective.

    Find a partner who will commit. Most of the work in setting up an afterschool program is in that part—setting it up. It makes sense to take time to find the right fit for your students, and to find a company that’s in it for the long term. A good company will prioritize building relationships from the get-go, so you know there’s that trust and dependency for future programs.

    Look for community investment. ESSER and other sources of funding (such as ELO-P in California) mention the importance of community building. Find a partner that has concrete plans in place to contribute to the local community, rather than just lip service.

    Make sure programs are catering to all needs—especially underserved communities. ESSER also highlights using funds to address the needs of historically underserved communities. Will this program help meet the needs of the community in your district and create equitable opportunities for access?

    Find programs that will get students excited. It’s a shame that most afterschool attendees’ main reason for turning up is “My mom made me.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Look for partners who create exciting programs that make students want to turn up—so long as they also deliver on quality. Excitement + quality = students spreading the word to their peers and creating exponential growth in program attendance.

    Launch your own ESSER-funded afterschool program

    Make sure they know their logistics. Admin can be tricky enough for the regular school day, so what happens when you add in out-of-school programs? Find a partner that knows their way around safety practices, reporting and all the software tools involved in collaborating with a multi-site school district. The last thing you need is to be searching through a dozen spreadsheets and email threads when it’s time for reporting.

    Most importantly of all, make sure partners have young peoples’ best interests at heart. Your students all have unique needs. Some of them may be struggling at school or at home. But they all deserve a chance to succeed in life. Afterschool and enrichment programs could be the spark that they need to find themselves and flourish—but that only happens in the folks running the programs genuinely care.

    It just so happens we know a company that ticks all of those boxes …

    Elementary-age students enthusiastically raise their hands in the air like they've just won a competition.Finding the right partner is key to using ESSER funds to run effective afterschool and enrichment programs. Copyright: Work ED

    How to partner with Work ED to launch ESSER-funded afterschool and enrichment programs

    We’re here to make afterschool and enrichment programs easy to set up and run for school districts.

    All our programs are designed to meet ESSER funding criteria for learning loss—but we go beyond that by creating lasting community impacts and partnerships that will go far beyond the limits of ESSER funding. When we commit, we aim to stay and keep creating opportunities.

    We’ve used our years of experience to identify why school districts sometimes struggle to get afterschool and enrichment programs off the ground (and actually get students to attend and enjoy themselves). 

    That’s why we’ve developed a 3-pronged approach to make afterschool easy and effective for any school district:

    1. Bring our own staff and technology

    2. Create exciting curricula and market programs to students and parents ourselves

    3. Foster community to create lasting partnerships and improve retention

    This creates a turnkey for solution for school districts: all we need is a classroom. We’ll take care of the rest.

    We make sure we meet the requirements of ESSER funding by (click on each to learn more):

    • Building strong relationships within the school district

    Our position is that we’re here to help you get the best programs for your students. That’s why we’ll prioritize getting to know you, your team, and the unique needs of your district. And we don’t have a one-and-done approach—we want committed partnerships so that we aren’t just providing a solution, we’re here to build a movement within the community.

    • Targeting core competencies that were affected by learning loss, such as math and English

    We’re here to help overcome learning loss and make sure that the programs we build, even if the emphasis is on fun, will help develop students’ core competencies. 

    • Applying a social, emotional learning (SEL) framework to both our curriculum and classroom management practices

    All are staff are trained to support students’ SEL development. This helps foster personal growth for our program attendees, which in turn supports academic growth and a pay-it-forward community spirit.

    • Creating programs around topics that get young people interested, such as video game design, drones and aviation, and cybersecurity

    Who said learning can’t be fun? We create programs around employable, future-facing careers and use interactive lessons to get students engaged in learning and to give them a taste of high-earning careers they may not be aware are available to them.

    • Ensuring that staff and time are made available to help students work on homework and other assignments

    Addressing learning loss means helping young people be their best selves personally and academically, so we give them the time and support they need to catch up in a safe space.

    • Creating community impacts through both parent and caregiver community days and by hiring local high schoolers as Teaching Assistant interns

    In every school district we operate in we also hire Teaching Assistants from high school within that district, fostering growth in the community for students who want to gain experience and support younger members of their community. We also encourage parents and caregivers to be part of their child’s journey by running a community day at the end of each program where students present their work. We also hire our full time team locally wherever possible.

    • Meeting student-to-staff ratio requirements

    We make sure we meet all the fine-print details of funding and safety requirements. We will always staff to required safe class management standards and ensure all staff are fully trained in all safety procedures, as well as supporting students’ unique emotional needs and improving accessibility for all.

    • Using our technology to accurately track attendance and incidents

    We have developed our own proprietary technology to run programs through one platform. From marketing the programs to students and parents through check-in and check-out procedures to learning management and reporting, our platform removes the need for dozens of spreadsheets (though we do respect our school partners’ processes and are ready to adapt if that’s preferable).

    • Gathering data at the end of our programs to show student impact

    At the end of each program we gather student, parent and staff feedback not just for reporting purposes but also so we can continuously improve on our processes.

    Let’s create opportunities for young people to not only make up for learning loss but use afterschool and enrichment as a springboard for entering high-earning careers.

    Fill out the form below to learn more or reach out to our Head of Development, Amanda Burt, at

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