Special Report

School Improvement Grant Efforts Face Hurdles

By Alyson Klein — April 25, 2011 8 min read
Mike Smith, the principal of Seaford High School in Seaford, Del., jokes with students, including Amira Holland, 16, left, as they exit the school last week. Seaford High is putting its own twist on one of the four options given to schools in the school improvement program.
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More than a year after the U.S. Department of Education supercharged the program targeting the nation’s lowest performing schools, with an influx of cash and a big makeover of the governing rules, states and districts are sorting through a thicket of practical and logistical issues.

Many of the challenges stem from navigating the four school improvement models outlined in federal regulations, which have been criticized as too restrictive.

But, states and schools also are grappling with the general difficulty of accomplishing an already mammoth task—turning around schools that have demonstrated chronically poor academic outcomes—while making major changes on a relatively tight time frame.

“The biggest challenge is that this is a new grant for everyone. It’s a new process,” said Sarah Pies, a Title I specialist for the Indiana education department. “We’re trying to get everybody to think outside the box about what they can do. We’re lighting a fire underneath all of them.”

More than 730 schools across the country are participating in the program this academic year, according to the Education Department. The School Improvement Grant program was initially authorized under the nine-year-old No Left Child Behind Act, but it received a significant rewrite—and funding boost—when Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in early 2009. That legislation included $3 billion for the program that could be spent over three years.

With the influx of new money came new restrictions. The regulations spelled out four possible models for schools to employ. In nearly all cases, they must replace the principal, unless that person has been on the job less than three years.

States, districts, and schools are still finding their way when it comes to implementing the models, coping with everything from the difficulty of finding new staff members to replace those that are removed to barriers to extending the school day.

To help tailor the models to local conditions, some states report they are urging districts to see the four options as a jumping-off point, not a step-by-step road map for school improvement.

“There’s a lot of conversation across the country that the four models don’t work,” said Dan Cruce, the deputy secretary of education in Delaware. “But the name of the model is just the name of the model. It’s what you do with the plan” that matters, he said.

‘Transformational’ Model

By far, the most popular of the four approaches spelled out is the so-called “transformational” model, considered by many to be the most flexible.

SIG Implementation

Turnaround Models
The Center on Education Policy surveyed 42 states and the District of Columbia on the average state level percentage of stimulus SIG grantees using various models. The survey was conducted in October and November 2010.


Kinds of Support
The Center on Education Policy, surveyed state Title I directors on how they planned to support schools receiving a School Improvement Grant under the federal economic-stimulus program and on which of four turnaround models they are using. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia responded to the survey, conducted from November 2010 through early January.


SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

It calls on schools to try out new educator evaluation methods that rely on measuring students’ academic growth, putting in place new instructional

strategies, extending learning time, creating community-oriented schools, and offering operational flexibility.

The second-most prevalent model is the “turnaround option” which calls for replacing at least 50 percent of a school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure, and implementing a new or revised instructional program.

Less popular were the options to close a school down entirely and send the students elsewhere, and the so-called “restart” model, which calls for closing a school, and reopening it under the management of a charter school operator, a charter-management organization, or an educational management organization.

Both of the schools Delaware selected for the SIG program are using the transformational model, but each is putting its own spin on transformation, Mr. Cruce said.

For instance, Seaford Senior High School in Seaford, Del., has decided to partner with New Tech, a Napa, Calif., based nonprofit organization that works with schools to focus on technology and project-based learning.

Even as states and districts strive to put a local twist on the models, they must work out some nuts-and-bolts issues.

Many are still grappling, for instance, with the difficulty of extending learning time, a strategy required under the transformational model. Schools that might want a longer academic day must contend with collective-bargaining agreements and busing schedules, state education officials said.

“For some districts, transportation is king,” said Sue Moulden-Horton, a Title I consultant for the Nevada education department. “To have one or two schools in the district saying, ‘We want to change our bus schedule,’ that’s going to have a snowball effect.”

Most Nevada schools opted instead to reconfigure their schedules so that students receive more instructional time, instead of actually adding minutes to the day, she said.

One exception was Kit Carson Elementary School in Las Vegas.

Principal,Cynthia Marlowe, who was hired last spring, had also hoped to build additional time into the school day this academic year. But by the time her school’s SIG plan was finalized, it was too late to make revisions to collective-bargaining agreements, which govern teachers’ work hours.

Instead, Ms. Marlowe expanded learning time in other ways, including by adding an hour of tutoring at the end of the day. Teachers from Kit Carson and other nearby schools were compensated separately for staffing the program.

All but ten of Kit Carson Elementary’s more than 200 students participate in the afterschool program, she said. Next year, however, the school will build extra minutes into the day.

In Louisiana, schools that were actually able to add minutes to the school day got a leg up in a competitive application process, said Rayne Martin, the director of the Louisiana education department’s office of innovation.

But that doesn’t mean schools that couldn’t work around the issue were left out in the cold, she said.

“Transportation costs are real and there is a real concern about that,” she said.

So, like Nevada, the school gave consideration to applicants who were able to specify how they would maximize learning time.

Staffing Is Challenge

Other schools are having trouble finding effective teachers and leaders to work in low-performing schools, said Caitlin Scott, a consultant for the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. Ms. Scott wrote a report examining the implementation of the SIG program in Michigan.

“The transformation and turnaround models often have roles for new employees or for existing employees to be repositioned as instructional coaches,” she said. But it can be difficult for schools to “find someone who is qualified and ready to fill that position, who fits into the culture of the school, who other teachers would accept as an expert.”

In some cases, turnaround schools haven’t had their first pick of new staff members, she added.

One of the schools Ms. Scott studied—Phoenix Academy in Detroit—chose the turnaround model, which requires new staffing.

But the principal, Norma Hernandez, had to select new hires from the pool of teachers that were in the process of being removed from the district’s other turnaround schools, Ms. Scott said. On top of that, the hiring process was completed at the end of the summer under tight time constraints.

“If you don’t have access to a good pool, you can spend a lot of time rehiring and not actually have changed what’s going to happen,” Ms. Scott said.

For her part, Ms. Marlowe, whose Las Vegas school is also using the turnaround model, ended up having to replace nearly all the teaching staff last spring.

She had some help from district officials in screening potential educators. Still, she found that a number of potential candidates were simply looking to get out of their current situation and didn’t fit with her vision for a new elementary school. Observations and references, she said, helped her weed those teachers out.

Overall, she’s happy with her choices.“I think I got very lucky with a lot of my teachers,” she said. “They knew what they were getting into and signed up for the challenge.”

The vast majority of the teachers will return next year, she said.

Some states are stepping in to help schools and districts address staffing needs.

Louisiana’s education department, for instance, is trying to help schools navigate this tricky issue by creating a state-run teacher pipeline, Ms. Martin said.

Schools can contact the state to gain access to pre-screened, pre-interviewed candidates.

“You literally call up,” Ms. Martin said. “We send five or six names for every vacancy.”

So far, the state has placed nearly 85 teachers, she added.

And, as part of its process in choosing SIG schools, Louisiana required districts to explain how they plan to help those chosen to recruit and select effective staff, Ms. Martin added.

But, she said, if schools feel they don’t yet have a good way of identifying which teachers should remain on staff, they’re encouraged to choose the transformational model, which doesn’t require that a particular number of teachers be removed.

That way schools can “make the right decisions over time about who should be in the building,” Ms. Martin said.

Crafting new teacher evaluation systems for schools that are doing the transformational model has also been a puzzle for SIG schools, state education officials said.

“The evaluation piece is probably the kicker,” said Ms. Moulden-Horton, the Title I director in Nevada. “That has been a struggle for all of our districts.”

That’s partly because it can be tough to create an evaluation for just one or two schools in a district, she said.

Some states, such as Delaware and Massachusetts, are coping with that thorny issue in part by revamping the procedure for all teachers statewide.

In the Bay State, for instance, SIG schools will be among the first to test-drive the teacher evaluation system that will eventually be implemented statewide, said Karla Baehr, a deputy commissioner.

Still, just a year into the program’s implementation, Ms. Bush and officials in other states say that they are pleased overall with the progress they’re beginning to observe.

“Seeing schools really begin to change the climate and atmosphere has been very encouraging,” said Ms. Pies, the Indiana Title I specialist said.

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 April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Improvement Grant Efforts Face Hurdles


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