Covid Fiscal Rochester
Budget & Finance

How COVID-19 Will Make Fixing America’s Worst-Performing Schools Even Harder

By Daarel Burnette II — March 23, 2021 12 min read
Budget & Finance

How COVID-19 Will Make Fixing America’s Worst-Performing Schools Even Harder

By Daarel Burnette II — March 23, 2021 12 min read

Six years ago, barely a third of the students at East High School, in Rochester, N.Y., graduated on time. Students were being suspended at a rate of more than 2,000 each year. More than half were chronically absent, and more than three-quarters couldn’t meet the state’s academic benchmarks.

In 2015, at a time when East High—one of the city’s oldest and biggest—had been deemed New York state’s worst-performing school, the district’s board let the University of Rochester take the reins.

The arrangement, which involved overhauling the staff, curriculum, and school climate, has proven mostly successful—and came at a sticker price of more than $36,000 per student.

By the 2019-20 school year, more than 78 percent of students had graduated on time, fewer than 68 had been suspended in a school of 2,000, and the majority of its freshman had met the state’s academic benchmarks.

“This school was struggling mightily. It was a bleeding wound, and the district needed to do something fast,” said Eamonn Scanlon, the Education Policy Director for the Children’s Agenda, a local advocacy organization that’s analyzed the district’s spending. “This community made a concentrated effort and gave the school more money than any other school in the district, and the results show.”

“The Legacy Project: The Eyes of our Ancestors,” an art installation by Rochester artist Shawn Dunwoody, at East High School in Rochester, New York on March 1, 2021.

Now, however, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to reverse the school’s progress. The Rochester School District, which funnels money to East while it remains under outside management, is in severe fiscal distress due to management missteps and the decline of the state’s sales and income tax revenue, which the district is heavily reliant upon. The school took a 20 percent funding cut last year.

Until February, the school had been in full remote-only learning, which upended its ambitious academic agenda. Adding to the disruptive atmosphere, Rochester has been the site of massive Black Lives Matter protests over the police killing of a Black man and the pepper-spraying of a 9-year-old Black girl in 2020.

When the pandemic ends, it will not be cheap for East’s staff to get students, many of whom have checked out during the school’s remote learning offerings, back up to speed. While the new American Rescue Plan funnels nearly $130 billion into K-12 nationally to deal with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the inadequacies and structural funding problems that have plagued districts such as Rochester will remain.

“With all the progress that we’ve made, we know that it’s slowed,” said Shaun Nelms, who holds the title of the superintendent at East, which has an upper and lower school and serves grades 6 to 12. “Everything we’ve done in the last five years to build this academic plan, to build a sense of family to build staff, that preparation, has got us through these difficult obstacles. COVID was our opportunity to see if this model works.”

Dr. Shaun Nelms, superintendent of East High School in Rochester, New York on March 1, 2021.

The precarious fate of East High School’s turnaround mirrors the fiscal pressures on many of the nation’s worst-performing schools.

These schools are scattered across urban, suburban, and rural settings alike. In many cases, they are filled with low-income students of color. And for the most part, they are heavily reliant on a volatile mix of sales and income tax revenue and, sometimes, philanthropic grants.

There’s no shortage of research-backed ideas on how to help them. But when, and if, administrators manage to craft, pay for, and jump-start a successful school turnaround model, the money often disappears before the staff can claim victory.

The widespread disruption of in-person schooling during the pandemic and the concurrent economic turmoil has made the situation even more precarious for these schools. They illustrate how America’s byzantine school finance system compounds, rather than assists, the nation’s fitful efforts to provide all students with an adequate and equitable education.

How money fueled a school’s turnaround

Despite districts collectively receiving billions of dollars in compensatory revenue from federal and state lawmakers though Title I and other programs, the nation’s worst-performing schools still struggle to financially break even with their better-performing counterparts, according to an Education Week analysis.

Using newly available public data compiled by Edunomics Lab, a research center based at Georgetown University, Education Week examined the 2018-19 school year spending amounts of almost 1,000 of the worst-performing schools in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, and Wyoming, as identified by their state agencies under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

In four of the five states, more than a third of the worst-performing schools had less to spend on students than the average school in their state.
In the fifth state, Georgia, almost half of the worst-performing schools spent less on students than the average school in their state.

In other words, even though these schools serve students who are conclusively harder and more expensive to educate, they’re starting at an economic disadvantage.

We’re not just throwing money at the project, we’re taking money and carefully placing it where it’ll produce a better life for kids.


The cause of this upside-down pattern of spending is two-fold, experts say.

Federal and state governments are often not sending enough money to make up for districts’ anemic local property tax revenue. Local administrators also often use the extra money they receive for academic intervention programs at these low-performing schools to patch holes in their overall budgets.

Chronically low spending can result in high teacher and principal turnover, inefficient curriculum and insufficient wrap-around services.

This could help explain the mixed results from President Barack Obama’s initiative under the School Improvement Grant program to spend more than $7 billion on the nation’s worst-performing schools.

“Was it actually $7 billion extra, or was it filling in gaps caused by the recession?” asked Terra Wallin, EdTrust’s Associate Director for P-12 accountability and special projects, who helped the department design and execute its SIG program in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. “It’s wrong to suggest that there was no return on investment.”

The pandemic squelches momentum

The pandemic has further warped states’ efforts in several ways.

ESSA gave states more autonomy to chose a turnaround model, as long as it was research-backed, and the law allowed states to consider accountability measures other than just test scores in identifying low-performing schools.

The federal government today spends more than $14.3 billion under Title I on schools that serve low-income students. ESSA requires states to set aside around 7 percent of their Title I spending to turn around their lowest-performing schools. That amounts to about $1 billion a year for more than 6,000 schools nationwide.

This has thrown everything off track because many of these schools were just trying to survive, literally trying to keep their virtual doors open.

But the percentage of schools identified as the worst-performing in each state varies widely, resulting in money being stretched across many schools or concentrated in just a handful. For example, Florida in 2018 identified more than 69 percent of its schools as under-performing; South Carolina, by contrast, identified only 3 percent in the same year.

States began identifying those schools in 2018 and are required to reevaluate which schools qualify as the worst-performing every three years. That new list would have been due this summer, but because of the pandemic, the federal government waived that requirement for a year.

As for the money that’s already been spent, it’s hard to tell whether it’s been used effectively because there’s little recent data, partly because of the pandemic’s disruption to standardized testing. Similarly, it’ll take even more data to figure out which crop of schools have yet to be identified but need to be.

“This has thrown everything off track because many of these schools were just trying to survive, literally trying to keep their virtual doors open,” said Wallin. “They’re much less focused on evidence-based intervention.”

How money made a difference in Rochester

Researchers increasingly point to the impact targeted revenue increases can have on academic outcomes at the school level.

East High School is an example. In 2015, the then-struggling school was separated from the district, placed under university control, and made the recipient of millions in federal turnaround grants. By the fall of 2019, almost every marker of academic outcomes had risen, and the school’s culture had improved, according to available data and studies conducted on the school.

Administrators in Rochester attribute their success over the past several years to consistent, adequate, and careful spending used for a tailor-made curriculum, intense teacher recruitment and retention strategies, and in-school and out-of-school wraparound services for students.

“You have to have sustainable, predictable revenue, and it has to be intentionally and strategically spent on what the evidence tells us makes a difference,” said Stephen Uebbing, a school of education professor at the University of Rochester, who guided a handful of professors and students in crafting East’s turnaround model. “We’re not just throwing money at the project, we’re taking money and carefully placing it where it’ll produce a better life for kids.”

Uebbing, who led New York’s Canandaigua district for 18 years before retiring in 2006, said the turnaround proposal was built on both best practices supported by research and on sufficient funding. He also said such funding “needs to be equitable, not equal funding. It needs to reflect the level of needs for the kids we’re working with.”

Most classrooms at East High School have large television displays connected to teacher workstations.

East had been one of Rochester’s flagship schools into the 1960s. But it started losing ground due to demographic shifts, failed integration efforts, and disinvestment from the school board, according to Nelms. Community tension was on the rise. Three days after a campaign visit from President Richard Nixon in 1971, a fight broke out between Black and white students in the cafeteria at a time when the school was attempting to comply with a voluntary integration plan. Families left the school in droves.

Over the next several decades, meanwhile, the district implemented an elaborate school choice model and invested more in its magnet programs than in neighborhood schools such as East. The school’s offerings suffered as a result, Nelms said.

By 2015, just 5 percent of the neighborhood’s students chose East, which now, like the district at large, is made up mostly of Black and Latino students. Almost 1 in 5 of its students are English-language learners, and more than 1 in 6 students have a learning disability. In addition to just a handful of students at the school meeting state benchmarks, there was high turnover among the teaching staff, morale was low, and the school lacked a cohesive curriculum.

Discipline—and the way it was administered—was also a problem. Any adult in the school—including police officers, cafeteria workers and hallway monitors—could issue suspensions and they often did, suspending students for days at a time for talking out of turn, not abiding by the dress code, and running in the hallway.

All of that culminated in the district’s decision in 2015 to put the University of Rochester in charge of turning around East. The university in turn tapped Nelms, a former assistant superintendent in the district, to lead the school.

By setting up the arrangement with the university, the school became eligible under the state’s accountability system for millions of dollars of state and federal improvement grants.

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Nelms along with the group of professors at the University of Rochester conducted several studies to identify the school’s needs. Faculty members were required to reapply for their jobs and, if hired, given a 9 percent raise.

In the 2015-16 school year, Nelms started adding hours to the school day, at a cost of $2 million a year, and developing customized education plans for each student. Students also were given two courses of math and two courses of English/language arts.

The school spent another $150,000 rewriting the curriculum, and half a million dollars on consultants from the university who offered more than 20 days of professional development, observed classes, and collected data.

It hired seven social workers, 11 guidance counselors, and two nurses, as well as an outside nonprofit to revise its discipline practices. And after learning that some students in the neighborhood were afraid of enrolling because of violence nearby, East increased bus transportation for all students.

By 2017, the results were promising. More students had started enrolling. Discipline incidents plummeted from 1,629 in 2015 to 332 in 2019. The passing rate on 9th graders’ state English/Language Arts exam climbed from 30 percent in 2015 to 60 percent in 2019.

By the start of the 2019-20 school year, just a few months before the pandemic, the school was one of the district’s fastest-growing in terms of academics.

The main entrance at East High School in Rochester, New York on March 1, 2021.

New pressures threaten to unravel East High’s progress

But the University of Rochester management regime couldn’t spare East from the district’s financial woes.

In 2019, the district’s chief financial officer mistakenly hired too many special education teachers, resulting in a $45 million shortfall. While the state bailed the district out with a loan, administrators still had to lay off more than 100 teachers and staff members.

The school board voted in 2020, after the start of the pandemic, to cut 20 percent of East High School’s budget. Nelms also reduced professional development, ended some contracted services with University of Rochester, and laid off some support staff.

Nelms said he expects Rochester this year to restore many of the cuts in a budget process starts in earnest this month. And while the state plans to make some cuts to its overall K-12 spending, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has proposed to restore a long-term loan the state has promised Rochester to help balance its budget.

Rochester stands to receive more than $200 million from the newest flood of federal COVID aid this year, according to local predictions. But the district’s CFO has warned of potential layoffs.

Still, Nelms said, “Now that we have a clear plan in place, it’s much easier to identify where new money has to go.”

Both Nelms and Uebbing also are convinced that the school’s spending needs will decrease over the coming years. The district spent a lot of money training teachers on classroom management and restorative practices, which they project will reduce costly discipline cases. Enrollment is expected to rebound, bringing in more per-pupil revenue. And with teachers having written the school’s curriculum, the administration hopes to spend less on professional development in that area.

“If you want to make a difference, you have to invest in that difference,” Uebbing said. “In the long run, it’ll make a better life for these kids.”

But the school’s supporters and others in the community are well-aware of how fragile its turnaround remains, especially at a time when the pandemic continues to destabilize local budgets nationwide.

“A big point of contention here for the last couple of years is this thought that, ‘Why does East get more money than my school?’ and ‘How can we take away from that?’” said Scanlon, of the Children’s Agenda advocacy group. “But if you do that, East is no longer what it is.”

Data visualizations by Laura Baker

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as How COVID-19 Will Make Fixing America’s Worst-Performing Schools Even Harder

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