Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified Sewell Elementary School’s principal. Her name is Carrie Larson.
In the nation’s fifth-largest school district, which encompasses the glitz and grime of Las Vegas, the economic-stimulus package has given school leaders a $193 million lifeline to continue the fundamentals needed to improve student achievement: tutoring for struggling students, credit recovery for those at risk of dropping out, and professional development for teachers.
While not trendy or flashy, those educational interventions met important criteria when officials here in the Clark County, Nev., district were weighing how to spend the federal largess. They were quick and easy to implement, and they already had a proven record of success. In other words, they were programs school leaders wanted to do anyway, except they had long ago run out of money.
Superintendent Walt Rulffes gave his 352 school principals wide latitude in spending their stimulus aid.
“We feel that the principals know best, and let them decide what the most profound central issue facing them is,” said Mr. Rulffes, whose district has 309,000 students. “But we expect some accountability. We’ll be measuring the results.”
Nevada illustrates why Congress passed the stimulus program in the first place.
As late as 2007, unemployment statewide was below 5 percent. In November 2009, it stood at 12.3 percent, tied with California as the second-highest in the country, behind Michigan, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And in 2009, for the third year in a row, Nevada posted the highest home-foreclosure rate in the nation, with one in 10 homes receiving a foreclosure notice, according to the Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac.
The recession that officially began in December 2007 has taken a toll on Clark County’s students. Interviews with teachers and school administrators show that many more students are homeless, living temporarily with people they know, or staying with their families in budget motels with weekly rates. Demand is up for school food pantries and donated-clothing services.
And the economic crisis has taken a toll on school districts as well. As tax revenues have declined, state officials have been forced to cut K-12 spending as part of a larger, $182 million reduction in spending during the current fiscal year, when overall state spending in Nevada declined 9 percent, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.
All told, Nevada is slated to get $565 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds coordinated by the U.S. Department of Education. That sum doesn’t count stimulus-funded competitive grants, such as through the Race to the Top Fund or the Investing in Innovation program, that the state or its districts could win.
Clark County school leaders say their district’s share of the economic-stimulus program allowed them to spare an estimated 1,100 jobs in the school system, which employs about 30,000 people.
The district, which covers 7,910 square miles, has seen significant growth—its enrollment in 2005 was 291,000. Even though the district has been able to avoid mass teacher layoffs because of the stimulus funding and because high attrition rates make it possible to simply leave positions unfilled, more budget cuts will have draconian consequences, Mr. Rulffes said.
“Cuts equal layoffs at this point,” he said.
Applying the Aid
While the complicated reporting mechanisms spelled out by the federal government make it difficult to figure out exactly how stimulus money is being spent around the country, a couple of days in Clark County gives a clear picture of how one large, urban, cash-strapped district is using the aid.
At the mostly Hispanic, mostly poor Valley High School, students in portable classroom No. 20 (the district has a lot of portables because of its explosive growth) are sitting in front of computers, working on lessons in U.S. history and other subjects as they try to make up for lost class credits—made possible, in part, because the recovery act paid for the program.
Across the school, Viviane Biggs, an instructional aide, is helping teacher John Hall in a pre-algebra class for English-language learners. She has a new job because of the recovery act.
After school, more than a dozen parents listen intently as Jorge R. Arriaga, a Spanish teacher, talks about apples, crayons, and colors as he teaches them English—part of a new parent-literacy class paid for through the stimulus program. (Increasing parental engagement—and especially helping parents learn English—makes for a better learning community, school leaders say.)
Principal Ronald Montoya knew right away the most profound, central issue at his 3,000-student school.
“My students can’t read, and my students are credit-deficient,” he said, referring to how far behind many students are in gaining enough credits to graduate on time. Part of Valley High’s $575,970 stimulus allocation went to beef up the school’s reading program.
Principal Uses Stimulus Aid to Help Students 1-on-1
Eleven miles away at Hinman Elementary School, Principal Ann Angulo wanted to focus her $188,778 in aid on the 5th grade, where she saw the greatest potential for achievement gains.
Three instructional assistants pull 5th graders who struggle to read out of their classes for one-on-one tutoring in a nondescript, previously unused room in the school. The sessions last up to 20 minutes. Ms. Angulo also added a 5th grade teacher to reduce class sizes to 23 per teacher, from 33.
And how will Hinman Elementary sustain those changes once the stimulus money disappears?
Ms. Angulo is hoping her teachers, who have input into how the school’s budget is allocated, will vote for keeping the instructional aides as tutors—even if it means losing out on their services during traditional classroom time.
“We have one more year to figure that out,” Ms. Angulo said.
Title I Conundrum
In Clark County, said Superintendent Rulffes, the stimulus funding has especially benefited schools that normally don’t get federal Title I money—not because they aren’t eligible for that aid for disadvantaged students, but because there is a limited amount of such money and schools with even greater needs.
Essentially, the stimulus program created 68 new, but temporary, Title I schools.
But it’s been a mixed blessing.
Sewell Elementary School, for example, is eligible for Title I funding—55 percent of its students are from low-income families that qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunches—but typically does not receive it because of limited funds. Under the recovery act, the school received $181,332—all of which was Title I money.
However, the school can’t really use stimulus money to buy “stuff,” such as new computers, Principal Carrie Larson says, because it would have to send it along to another Title I school once it reverts to non-Title I status when its Title I stimulus aid runs out. Federal law dictates that anything bought with Title I money must follow Title I students—a provision that ensures such assistance stays with the neediest children, but one that also creates problems for temporary Title I schools like Sewell Elementary.
So, Ms. Larson invested the bulk of her money in hiring Kimberly Basham, a teacher-mentor who works to improve classroom teaching. That poses a problem: Can Ms. Basham’s position be saved when the stimulus money runs out?
“We’re very grateful with what we have now, and we’ll just have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to allocate the money we do have,” Ms. Larson said.
At the district’s Gray Elementary School, also a non-Title I school, Principal Carl Johnson has families who are poor enough to live in the nearby Budget Suites, a low-cost, weekly-rate motel. But he also has families in which the parents are wealthy doctors and lawyers who balked when they heard their school was getting Title I money, stimulus or not. It was the stigma attached to Title I that drew their objections, he explained.
“I had several parents who said, ‘I thought this was a good school,’ ” Mr. Johnson said. “So I had to take the time to explain what a good thing this was.”
For him, accepting $84,096 in stimulus aid—and targeting it toward reducing 5th grade class size and expanding a reading and writing program—was a “no-brainer.”
“We need to look at our instruction,” he said, “and we need to teach better.”
Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Aid Offers Opportunity To Keep Programs Aloft