As Federal Grants Taper Off, Two N.C. Districts Tally Impact

By Alyson Klein — June 09, 2015 11 min read
Janna Sells, an instructional facilitator, hugs 3rd grader Shamonica Branch at East Iredell Elementary School in Statesville, N.C.
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If you want to see President Barack Obama’s approach to reimagining K-12 education in full force, take a road trip down I-40, through two North Carolina school districts that have used a patchwork of one-time federal grants to spur big change.

Talk to 4th graders in the Iredell-Statesville district about how strategies financed by an Investing in Innovation grant have improved their reading.

Watch a veteran high school teacher make “Romeo and Juliet” relevant for students using 1-to-1 laptops and personalized learning, hallmarks of the administration’s district-level Race to the Top grants.

Then drive about an hour to Guilford County, where Parkview Village Elementary Expressive Arts Magnet School is in the midst of a turnaround effort fueled by a School Improvement Grant. Chat with a 5th grade math teacher who has moved students’ test scores so far and so fast she’s received a $20,000 bonus, thanks to a program that’s been financed with help from the Teacher Incentive Fund.

But you’ll have to make the trip soon: The districts’ federal grants are waning fast, the last of them set to wind down in December 2016.

Both districts, which form an epicenter of sorts of the Obama administration’s marquee education programs, are taking a hard look at their ledgers to figure out what they can continue to pay for and where they can skimp if they want to sustain the progress they’ve made.

“We aggressively went after the grants thinking when the economy bounced back, the [state and local] funding would be back,” said Melanie Taylor, the deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the 20,000-student Iredell-Statesville district, which cuts through a largely suburban and rural swath of the Tarheel State, near Charlotte.

Virginia Stanfield, a 5th grade math teacher at Parkview Expressive Arts Magnet School in High Point, N.C., used bonus money to stock a closet with supplies and prizes for students.

But as the extra federal aid dries up, the district is braced for cuts, in part because state per-pupil aid hasn’t yet rebounded to prerecession levels.

The programs that the federal money has paid for “are really meeting the needs of students, ... and we need to ensure [students] keep growing toward being ready for college and career,” Ms. Taylor said.

The story is similar in Guilford County.

“Every day, we are talking about what we’ll no longer be able to do,” said Nora Carr, the chief of staff for the 72,200-student district, which includes the city of Greensboro.

Spigot Running Dry

Since the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided some $100 billion for education, Mr. Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have used a parade of highly sought-after competitive grants to reward states and districts willing to embrace the administration’s education redesign priorities, including college- and career-ready standards and teacher evaluation tied in part to student test scores.

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But it’s unclear just how much lasting change those competitive-grant dollars—about $20 billion over the past six years, including more than $14 billion for the administration’s signature programs—have wrought.

Case in point: Back in 2010, North Carolina won a coveted, $400 million slice of the Race to the Top program, in part because of its commitment to the Common Core State Standards initiative. And, as a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the state also benefited indirectly from the roughly $160 million Race to the Top assessment grant for the design of common-core-aligned tests.

Now, with those grants on their last legs, North Carolina is reviewing the standards. So far, it hasn’t gone ahead with its plan of using the SBAC tests, and some teachers privately doubt it ever will.

Guilford County and Iredell-Statesville won their competitive federal grants in part because they had laid out smart sustainability plans, according to the Department of Education’s peer reviewers. Neither expected the money to be around forever.

The districts also were in a strong position to take advantage of the new dollars. Each has already made progress on policy prescriptions close to Mr. Duncan’s heart, including using student data to inform instruction and experimenting with alternative systems of teacher pay.

And both have seen a succession of superstar superintendents. Guilford is now led by Mo Green, who came from the state’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools, a system nationally known as an innovator on teacher quality.

Guilford County’s previous chiefs include Jerry D. Weast, whose district was a finalist for the Broad Prize for urban education when he later led the Montgomery County, Md., system, and Terry B. Grier, now the chief in Houston, which won its second Broad Prize on his watch. Both were the state superintendent of the year while in Guilford. (Mr. Weast is a trustee of Education Week‘s nonprofit parent company.)

Iredell-Statesville’s superintendent, Brady Johnson, was named the state superintendent of the year in 2014. Before he took over, the district was led by another North Carolina superintendent of the year, Terry K. Holliday, now the commissioner of education in Kentucky.

But there have been widespread complaints that high-flying districts with experienced grant-proposal writers on staff—districts like Guilford and Iredell-Statesville—have had a big advantage over other applicants, particularly smaller school systems in rural areas. That perception has made the Obama administration’s competitive grants unpopular in Congress, and it’s possible many of the programs won’t survive the president’s tenure.

Innovation at Work

In 2010, Iredell-Statesville was one of 49 winners that beat out more than 1,600 other applicants for a slice of the $650 million first round of the Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant program, which helps test-run promising projects at the district and nonprofit level. It triumphed over more than 350 other applicants to become one of 16 winners of the first round of the Race to the Top grants for districts. Only a few other districts in the country secured funding from both programs.

Iredell-Statesville has been able to braid the two funding streams to accelerate a districtwide push to instruction tailored to students’ individual needs.

Specifically, the i3 money has fueled a response-to-intervention, or RTI, program, which uses data and formative assessments to identify children’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s aimed primarily at students in special education, those with limited English proficiency, and those with other challenges.

Janna Sells, the instructional facilitator at East Iredell Elementary, who taught in the district before the i3 grant, said she previously would have been able to tell that one of her students had difficulty reading. But she wouldn’t have been sure of the root cause or how to fix it.

Now, thanks to the district’s RTI focus, she can take a look at the student’s outcomes on a series of assessments, say with certainty what the issue is—decoding, maybe—and pinpoint the right fix.

“I can say, ‘Your kid is struggling, but I know why,’ ” Ms. Sells said. “i3 taught us how to have that conversation.”

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SIG Money Gives Principal Tools for Turnaround

The results have been striking: Iredell-Statesville students in grades K-8 have leapt more than 20 percentage points as measured by a dibels oral-fluency test, for example.

The aid from the Race to the Top program for districts, meanwhile, has ensured that nearly every middle and high school student in Iredell-Statesville has access to a laptop computer. Teachers can use the devices to link students with programs that help them bridge gaps in their skills. Sometimes those gaps are identified by the diagnostic tools funded with help from the i3 grant.

Iredell-Statesville relies on “blended-learning coaches” stationed at its schools to help teachers become familiar with the new approach. These coaches often collaborate with their school’s “instructional facilitator,” who may be the on-site point person on i3. The district is planning to create a new hybrid position at many of its middle and high schools when the grant money runs dry.

But helping a teacher use and program state-of-the-art devices, while serving as an instructional-data coach and, sometimes, as the resident response-to-intervention guru, is a lot to ask of one person, said Barbara Hill, the instructional facilitator at North Iredell Middle School.

“I feel like something is going to go by the wayside,” she said.

Once the federal money is gone, the district could hang on to the laptops—which it leases, but will own after three years—and hopes to continue with the processes, procedures, and new culture the grants have helped put in place.

A bigger challenge may be finding the money to continue with the thrice-yearly “data days” that are a hallmark of Iredell-Statesville’s i3 program, in which groups of teachers spend hours unpacking and analyzing student outcomes. And the three i3 coaches who operate out of the district office will likely have to find jobs elsewhere in the system.

Turnaround Challenges

Sheila Gorham, the principal of Guilford County’s Allen Middle School, knows a thing or two about trying to implement big changes with—and without—federal largess.

Ms. Gorham served as the principal of Wiley Elementary School as it was going through a transformation made possible by nearly $2.5 million in federal School Improvement Grant money. The school, like Guilford’s other SIG schools, made gains on state tests, growing faster than North Carolina’s average.

Now, Ms. Gorham, who was named Guilford County’s principal of the year in 2014-15, is trying to replicate that success at Allen Middle, using some of the same strategies, but without the federal dollars.

Guilford has used SIG funding, which requires districts to choose from a menu of intensive turnaround strategies, at four schools. The district borrowed some of those ideas for its own locally financed turnaround efforts at a few schools, including Allen Middle, now in its second year of the district’s improvement program.

Like one of the federal options, Guilford’s homegrown approach calls for getting rid of a school’s principal, if that person has been on the job for more than a year without progress; extending instructional time; and replacing at least half the staff.

At Wiley Elementary, those dramatic, politically prickly strategies came with a sweetener: three years of robust federal funding. Ms. Gorham was able to bring in consultants to help her teachers with classroom management and student behavior, and give the school a hand in implementing single-gender classes.

But, when Ms. Gorham got to Allen, she had a much smaller pot of money, about $450,000 in extra funds under a special local program. That meant she had to make some difficult choices, including scaling back the school’s social worker from full- to part-time, to pay for additional instructional coaches.

Allen Middle School did, however, take advantage of another major federal funding stream. Like Iredell-Statesville, Guilford got a $30 million grant under Race to the Top for districts, which was used to buy 1-to-1 tablets and better customize instruction to individual students. Now, the program is at every middle school in the district.

The initiative hasn’t been without its problems. After a fast, aggressive rollout, Guilford temporarily halted the program, amid hardware challenges. The early days were particularly tough on turnaround schools like Allen Middle.

“We were trying to reculture the school, and it was too much,” Ms. Gorham said. “It created more time away from instruction, … and we needed to be able to focus on the essential instruction that we needed.”

She was grateful that the district hit the pause button and restarted the 1-to-1 initiative, with the help of its vendor, Amplify. It’s operated much more smoothly this time around, she said. (Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, is a trustee of Education Week‘s parent company.)

And overall, Ms. Gorham sees the tablets as a net positive and a huge motivating tool for her students. But learning to teach with the new devices—which are leased and may or may not be around when the grant ends—while managing a turnaround and a still-in-question transition to the common core is a lot for teachers to juggle, she said.

“It’s hard to talk about what we’re going to do for the curriculum when we don’t know what standards we’re going to use to drive the curriculum,” she said. “We don’t really need that uncertainty, when we’re trying to deal with what else is going on.”

Second Shot

John King, who is filling the role of the deputy secretary of education, said the Obama administration’s competitive grants have brought about “large-scale systemic” change, including more rigorous standards in more than 40 states.

“Those are upfront investments that will continue to pay dividends over time even after the initial federal investment ends,” said Mr. King, who previously was the state schools chief in New York.

When districts like Guilford and Iredell-Statesville test-drive new approaches to improving instruction, everyone can benefit, he said.

“We also hope that lessons learned from these grantees will influence how other districts use their formula dollars,” Mr. King said, such as Title I aid for disadvantaged students.

But Paul Manna, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., who has studied the administration’s competitive initiatives, said that “there’s no doubt that some of these activities will just shut down” when the money runs out, despite the best efforts of districts and states.

“It’s not that places will just drop this stuff, drop it cold—they’ll think about how to sustain things; it becomes this search for other sources of funding,” he said.

With North Carolina aiding K-12 at lower levels per pupil than it did before the recession hit in 2008-09, the Guilford and Iredell-Statesville districts are planning to continue to go after federal dollars.

But even if the Obama administration ends up having more competitive-grant money to spread around, there are no guarantees that either of those districts will outshine hundreds of other applicants to win again. So, both North Carolina districts are looking for alternative sources of funding.

“We’ve kind of had this rising tide of poverty mapped against this rapidly shrinking resource base,” Guilford County’s Ms. Carr said. “It’s two runaway trains headed for a collision. So sustainability is more in question than it was.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as As Federal Grants Taper Off, Two N.C. Districts Tally Impact


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