Struggling Calif. Schools Get a Shot in the Arm

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The good news is, 430 California schools are feasting on $96 million in state funds designed to give them the extra resources they need to shape up. Of course, all that money comes with a catch: severe penalties if the schools don't turn things around.

The state completes its kickoff of the program next week, as 353 of the schools face an Oct. 1 deadline to spend their $50,000 state planning grants. The state says they must use the money to hire evaluators who will identify the schools' weaknesses and help figure out a way to fix them.

Once the plans are approved by district and state officials in March, the schools will receive up to $168 per student in extra aid to put the plans into action.

The other 77 schools have already completed the planning process and will receive federal grants of $200 per student or $50,000--whichever is greater--over the next three years.

In exchange for the extra money, however, each school must reach its performance goals within a year, or it will face district intervention. After two years, the state could impose sanctions by reorganizing the school, reassigning staff members, or, in the most extreme instance, shutting the school down.

Scramble for Funds

"Some of the consequences sound a bit harsh," said David Gerhard, the principal of R.H. Dana Elementary School in the Capistrano Unified School District, near Los Angeles. His 700-student school, like the others in the program, volunteered to participate. "But I'm very confident that these efforts will show improvements," he said. "I think it's a risk worth taking."

The Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools program is part of a package of accountability measures advanced by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and approved by the legislature last spring. The state devoted an additional $96 million to set up a reward program for California school that show significant improvement on a new state index that measures test results and other factors. ("Scoring Glitch Clouds Impact of Prop. 227," July 14, 1999.)

The schools in the intervention program will also be eligible for up to $150 per student through that reward program if they meet their goals.

The 430 schools were among 3,100 statewide that scored below the 50th percentile on the 1998 and 1999 state achievement tests. Of those 3,100 schools, 1,400 applied to take part in the intervention efforts.

State officials whittled the list down through a selection process that sought to include proportionate representations of elementary, middle, and high schools from both rural and urban areas, as well as schools that scored at a range of different levels on the state tests.

State officials say it was a good sign that they had to turn so many schools away.

"We were absolutely delighted and surprised at the response," said Bill Padia, the director of policy and evaluation for the state education department. "It's a very optimistic scenario that so many schools were ready to make changes, despite the potential sanctions."

Local administrators say that the fact that so many schools were willing to participate also shows the lengths they will go to in order to squeeze more money out of a system that too often comes up short.

"It's an ongoing challenge to get adequate funding for schools," the Capistrano district's Mr. Gerhard said, noting that his elementary school is now adopting the Success for All reading program. "This funding will really help us implement this program."

Vol. 19, Issue 3, Page 14

Published in Print: September 22, 1999, as Struggling Calif. Schools Get a Shot in the Arm
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