March 15, 2023

Filling the Gap to Assemble Supplemental Education Opportunities: A Bellwether Blog Q&A Series featuring Kristen McCarver at Bluum

By Paul Beach

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing greater academic, social, and emotional challenges than ever before. Schools can’t address these needs on their own — and families need options. As families, caregivers, and schools look for ways to assemble a range of education options to meet students’ needs, Bellwether sat down with Filling the Gap cohort participants to discuss how assembling a more flexible educational ecosystem can be responsive to students’ needs. Stay tuned for more Q&As in this Bellwether blog series as March continues. To learn more about Filling the Gap and to read more in this Bellwether blog series, click here. Posts have been edited for clarity and content.  

I recently spoke with Kristen McCarver, communications director at Bluum, a Filling the Gap cohort participant focused on giving Idaho students access to a high-quality education.

Paul Beach (PB): Tell us a little bit about Bluum and your role within the organization.

Kristen McCarver (KM):

As an Idaho native, I was drawn to the nonprofit sector and Bluum’s mission to give children in the state access to high-performing, innovative school models and a great education. Growing up, my family moved me from a large urban elementary school to a small, two-room rural school and I blossomed as a student in a multi-age system. I’m passionate about this work and about helping Idaho students develop into the people they’re meant to be.

Bluum does this work in three ways:

  • Through our partnership with the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, where we advance new and innovative approaches to learning.
  • Through our Idaho New School Fellowship for elevating top leadership talent in the state.
  • Through our $22 million U.S. Department of Education grant award that enables us to support charter schools statewide with startup and expansion funding, along with technical assistance in academics, marketing, communications, operations, and more. Because every child deserves an education that prepares them for college, career, and life.

PB: How have families, students, and schools weathered the pandemic?
We’re pretty much in the same boat as everyone else with learning loss. The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores showed students in the state didn’t bear the full brunt of nationwide learning loss; they fared better than a lot of states, probably because Idaho schools reopened for in-person learning earlier on. And some family structures in Idaho allowed parents to support learning at home a bit more when the schools were closed.

Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of Idaho parents are excited about mixing up learning options for their children. For example, Gem Prep is leading a pilot for microschools in the state. Its model taps into an online, rigorous learning platform. Parents in Lewiston and Emmett meet in a Grange Hall or VFW facility to supervise a group of students doing this online learning and independent work — it’s a hybrid of in-person and online instruction that students respond well to.

One outgrowth of the pandemic is that Idaho families are trying a lot of promising and good options to support their children’s learning.

PB: Can you tell us a little bit about what the Empowering Parents microgrant program is and how it was established?
The grant program started in 2020 during COVID-19. Bluum partnered with the Idaho State Board of Education to apply for a federal grant through the Education Stabilization Fund, which was intended to help state agencies address the specific needs of students, families, and teachers during the pandemic. Although the state didn’t get the grant award, Gov. Little really liked the approach we laid out in the grant and was excited about it. The governor allocated $50 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds to fund the Strong Families, Strong Students microgrant program. So that was the first iteration of the state’s microgrant program. The Idaho State Board of Education led the execution and contract fulfillment of the platform, and Bluum oversaw branding, community outreach, and marketing to target families in need and to ensure equitable access to the program. Empowering Parents is the second iteration of the program and was funded at another $50 million, so that’s where we are at.

PB: Is funding available to families for different learning options for their children through the Empowering Parents microgrant program?
Yes. The microgrant program provides qualifying families $1,000 to $3,000 to spend on their children’s learning. Parents use these funds for things like technology devices, tutoring, occupational speech therapy, music lessons, and enrichment opportunities. There are a lot of different options. The goal of Bluum’s work this time around is to help families take advantage of supplemental learning opportunities for kids’ long-term growth. We’ve been raising awareness among families that these kinds of enrichment programs qualify.

PB: What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about the Empowering Parents microgrant program and other public policies like it? 
I wish that everyone knew and understood the level of work and cooperation involved in the implementation of these kinds of policies. At last count, the Empowering Parents program had a total of 29,500 parent applicants serving 59,000 kids. The scale of that is enormous.

These families and students are our “why” at Bluum, the buck stops with them. A lot goes into understanding who you’re trying to reach and helping them access the program. And it’s a total balancing act between providing a positive user experience while maintaining accountability for public dollars. There are a lot of moving parts.

PB: What lessons did you learn from the earlier iteration of the microgrant program, Strong Families, Strong Students, and how have those lessons informed your current work?
Three lessons come to mind:

  1. A simplified user experience is top of mind. The first microgrant program required a lot of document uploads from parents, verification of enrollment from their school —just a lot of upfront work for applicants. Taking the burden off of parents in subsequent programs is a big part of the approach to making things even more accessible for qualifying families.
  2. Community partnerships are important to reach populations that benefit the most from innovative educational opportunities. Bluum did a lot of work with community nonprofit partnerships, homeless shelters, migrant liaisons, etc., to ensure their staff could support their constituents in accessing microgrants. Those community partnerships were really our “boots on the ground.”
  3. The Strong Families, Strong Students program was earlier on in the pandemic, and many families bought technology devices out of sheer necessity when schools were closed for in-person learning. In subsequent cycles, we are trying to increase awareness for more robust learning opportunities and therapy supports families can access. One mother in a focus group said this opportunity could get her child the vision therapy she needed; it was a make-or-break for her child to be able to read or not. That’s just one anecdote, among many, that demonstrates the power of microgrant programs like Strong Families, Strong Students and Empowering Parents.

PB: How does Bluum raise awareness of the Empowering Parents microgrant program among families furthest from opportunity? What’s been going well? What’s been particularly challenging?
For Strong Families, Strong Students, we didn’t have a huge budget to aim at traditional marketing, but we were able to leverage community partnerships. For Empowering Parents, we leveraged funding (including the Filling the Gap grant we received) to build awareness through more traditional marketing channels, including digital, radio, streaming TV ads, and more. And we were intentional about how we targeted those ads. The budget threshold for families to qualify for funds is $60,000 or below in adjusted gross income. We wanted to meet families where they were at to build awareness, let them know eligibility criteria, and how to apply.

Bluum also did a robust marketing campaign, with five million impressions for digital ads for our target audience via audio, display ads, TV streaming ads, pre-roll video on YouTube — all of which were geo-targeted. Our YouTube watch-through rate was 98%! And we did all of this in English and Spanish since dual-language families are about 18% of Idaho’s K-12 student population. We wanted to ensure that we removed as many barriers to access as possible.

One huge challenge for us was differentiation from the prior experience in the earlier iteration of Empowering Parents (i.e., Strong Families, Strong Students), which led to confusion for families about whether the program was the same or new. We had to (re)build that knowledge base and encourage qualifying families to reapply. Another challenge was helping families understand what expenses and purchases were eligible — many were confused about what they could use the money for, so we had to be intentional and clear about those parameters. Finally, provider outreach was a hurdle in building understanding among vendors that they can apply to a centralized marketplace and participate in Empowering Parents to provide high-quality services for families.

PB: Our work has shown that microgrants or similar programs like Empowering Parents are popping up across the country. What’s one piece of advice you have for organizations supporting this kind of work in other states?
You cannot communicate, market, or talk about the programs enough. Have boots-on-the-ground partnerships to help families apply and support with FAQs and resources. Be really intentional about defining what eligible expenses are. Be intentional with vendor recruitment, especially for rural families who should have access to opportunities available in urban areas. Bluum, like other nonprofits in other states, just wants to help students catch up after a really tough couple of years. We’re proud to do this work every day for Idaho students and families.

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