Verdict still out on school turnarounds

Editor’s note – Reporters around the country collaborated with the Education Writers Association, Education Week and The Hechinger Report for an analysis of the nation’s massive effort to improve its lowest-performing schools. Education News Colorado was one of the partners.

After two years, the federal program providing billions of dollars to help states and districts close or remake some of their worst-performing schools remains an ambitious work in progress, with roughly 1,200 turnaround efforts under way but still no verdict on its effectiveness.

Classroom aide John Noriega works with Odalys Mendoza at Center's Haskin Elementary, one of 27 Colorado schools receiving SIG dollars.

The School Improvement Grant or SIG program, supercharged by a $3 billion windfall under the federal economic-stimulus program in 2009, has jump-started aggressive moves by states and districts.

To get their share of the money, they had to quickly identify some of their most academically troubled schools, craft new teacher-evaluation systems, and carve out more time for instruction, among other steps.

Some schools and districts spent millions of dollars on outside experts and consultants. Others went through the politically ticklish process of replacing teachers and principals, while combating community skepticism and meeting the demands of district and state overseers.

About the series

It’s not at all clear if the federal prescription can cure the most ailing schools and lead to long-term improvements, but preliminary student achievement data for the program offer some promise.

The U.S. Department of Education looked at about 700 of the schools in their second year of the program and found that a quarter of them posted double-digit gains in math during the 2010-11 school year. Another 20 percent showed similar progress in reading.

A collaborative reporting project drawing on the efforts of more than 20 news organizations and affiliated journalists paints a mixed picture of how the SIG program is playing out on the ground.

The major findings show:

  • States have pulled SIG money from at least a dozen schools that showed anemic progress on early indicators of success, such as teacher and student attendance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Five schools in Pueblo, Colo., have seen student performance sink even lower after awarding a $7.4 million grant to an outside provider.
  • A plan for a new teacher-evaluation system in New York City led to a temporary loss in turnaround funding after city officials clashed with the local teachers union.
  • Schools nationwide, especially those in rural areas, are wrestling with personnel and leadership changes driven by the program’s requirements, along with a mandate to add extra time to the instructional day.

At the same time, the program’s supporters can point to encouraging — though early — developments.

In Louisville, Ky., a handful of long-troubled schools posted double-digit gains in its state math scores after just one year in the program. An elementary school in an isolated valley in Colorado saw a 9-point spike in its state math scores, and smaller gains in other subjects.

Other schools haven’t seen big jumps in achievement yet but are beginning to glimpse a new school culture, including improved discipline and attendance. Some of the best early reviews come from students, who say their schools are calmer and more academically rigorous.

“I feel more safe, and I feel like I’m learning more. They are starting to have challenges for us,” said Jasmine Dukes, a seventh-grader at Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton, formerly Calverton Middle School, in Baltimore.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also sees signs of recovery in schools across the country, even as he cautions that it’s still too early to draw conclusions about the program’s effectiveness.

“Big picture, there’s really significant movement in a very short amount of time, which I think a lot of folks felt wasn’t possible,” Duncan said. But he doesn’t expect overnight success: “This is really, really hard work; there’s a reason the country took a pass on this for a couple of decades.”

All of which argues for caution in assessing the program’s effectiveness so far.

“There’s evidence on both sides of the coin,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and a leading researcher on school improvement. “This is not the Oldsmobile of comprehensive school reform. … [This is] a souped-up model coming hard and fast and getting big changes quick. … The big question is whether those changes are going to lead to improvement.”

Funding Gusher: With billions more dollars come tighter strings for schools

The current SIG program is a bolder version of a once-sleepy program created under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 to help states turn around their lowest-performing schools. In its original form, the program never topped $500 million in federal funding — less than one-half of 1 percent of current federal education spending overall.

Daeja Rossi, a sixth-grader at Denver's Lake International Academy, in a 90-minute language arts class. The school plans to expand the class next year as it tweaks its turnaround plan.

But in 2009, federal lawmakers — in passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and with little debate — poured an additional $3 billion into SIG. That sent districts scrambling for a share of the three-year competitive grants, worth up to $2 million annually to perennially struggling schools.

With the flood of cash came new, tighter strings. Eligible schools — identified through a complex, multi-tiered process — are among what the Education Department often describes as a state’s bottom 5 percent academically. Schools taking the money have to adopt one of four controversial improvement models. In some cases, at least half of a school’s teaching staff must be replaced. A school might be converted into a charter school — or even shut down. And no matter which option is chosen, a school’s principal must be removed, unless that person has been on the job for under three years.

Federal officials defend that prescriptive approach. They say that, in the past, states had failed to pick rigorous turnaround options — such as taking over a school or turning it into a charter — when given a broader menu of choices.

“Schools literally got worse,” said Duncan. “The children that need the most help, the majority of them, got less help than before. That was absolutely crazy to me; that’s what I was fighting against” in overhauling the SIG program.

So far, the department has examined results for roughly 700 of the 850 schools that joined the program in 2010-11, and it plans to release more information on student results later this year. During the first year of the program, the proportion of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in roughly 60 percent of SIG schools, Duncan said.

But some state and local leaders still chafe at what they see as a heavy-handed federal approach.

On required reform models
“They mandated these models before they even researched them. We’re testing it out.”
— Nevada superintendent

“It’s too restrictive. They mandated these models before they even researched them,” said Keith Rheault, who served more than a decade as Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, before retiring on April 2nd. “We’re testing it out.”

From the get-go, the program has been reviled on Capitol Hill as Exhibit A for those arguing against federal overreach in K-12 education. Congressional critics—Democrats and Republicans alike—assail what they see as arbitrary staffing requirements, a lack of options for rural schools, and a wobbly research base. The program is almost certain to get an extreme makeover, and its funding remains in jeopardy.

Still, a majority of urban school district officials think the program has the potential to deliver lasting change to long-foundering schools, according to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization in Washington, D.C., that represents the nation’s urban school districts.

Some state leaders are upbeat as well. “Overall, I’m optimistic and positive about the grants,” said Mark Coscarella, assistant director in the Office of Education Improvement and Innovation at the Michigan Department of Education. “I think we’ve seen schools really take on the challenge of making some really important improvements.”

Time Crunch: Some schools got money just weeks before school year began

Schools have made big changes against a tight clock, a consequence of the program’s genesis: the 2009 stimulus package, which sought to pump job-boosting federal money into the economy. Although the grants run for three years, some school districts got their money just weeks before the start of the 2010-11 school year.

That left many districts with little time to find principals or teachers and sell the reforms to the community. A report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, criticized the federal Education Department for taking too long to process applications, which did not give districts and schools enough time to figure out the program’s tricky framework.

Local school leaders say they are still recovering from the crunch.

“There’s a lot to do in a short period of time,” said Philip Yaccick, principal of the Weston Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Detroit, which received a $1.8 million SIG grant. “In an ordinary situation, there’s a little more time to create the change, but then also [to] implement and solidify the change.”

But federal officials defend the accelerated timeline from both a job-creation and school-turnaround standpoint.

“Our children had waited too long. We realized we should not — we could not — wait any longer,” said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Personnel Hurdles: Schools scramble with requirement to replace staff

By far, districts and schools have had the toughest time with the SIG program’s human resources requirements, which demand big changes in how schools deal with staff under all four of the federal models.

Sheridan, Colo., fourth-grade teacher Julie Westing is in her tenth year of teaching but her first year at Fort Logan Elementary, a SIG school.

Even the most flexible of those models — “transformation,” the one chosen by nearly three-quarters of participating schools — requires districts to devise teacher-evaluation systems that take student performance into account.

The task has proven so difficult that last August, the federal Education Department gave states and districts until the start of the 2013-14 school year to have the systems fully implemented for use in teacher compensation and retention decisions. But the process has been rocky: Earlier this year, New York state for a time withheld SIG money from New York City when the city teachers union and the district struggled to reach agreement on an evaluation system.

Under a number of models, districts and schools have struggled to replace long-serving teachers and principals. More than half of participating large urban districts said they didn’t have enough time to hire qualified staff, according to the urban schools group survey.

Some schools using the second-most popular option — “turnaround,” which calls for getting rid of at least half a school’s staff — scrambled to fill slots, or hired scores of novice teachers. For example, an analysis by The Courier-Journal, of Louisville, found that 60 new hires across seven SIG schools, or more than 40 percent, were new to the profession.

To lure qualified educators, some districts, including Nevada’s Clark County, spent SIG funding on signing bonuses to attract experienced teachers. Indiana and other states turned to alternative training programs such as Teach For America, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that places new college graduates in under-resourced schools. And in Chicago, some schools are partnering with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, where prospective educators spend a “residency” year working with a master teacher.

Some schools kept most of their teaching forces, but used their SIG funds for extensive professional development. Chicago’s Hancock High School spent part of its grant on three “interventionists” — master teachers in reading, math and writing who teach demonstration lessons and work with students and teachers individually.

“When you have a brand-new set of teachers, it’s difficult to know how it will play out,” said Pam Glynn, the Hancock principal. “They may be well-versed in content, but may come from a different socioeconomic group and may struggle to connect with the kids.”

Rural schools’ struggle
“We’re not Denver. We didn’t think that just firing half of our teachers and hiring whatever was available out there was necessarily going to be a higher-quality option than what we currently have.”
— George Welsh of Center, Colo.

The nation’s rural schools, which account for about a fifth of SIG schools overall, have opted mainly for the flexible “transformation” model, which doesn’t call for a big staffing shake-up, but requires schools to replace the principal, create new teacher-evaluation systems and add learning time to the school day.

“We’re not Denver,” said George Welsh, superintendent of the 600-student Center Consolidated School District, which has a single elementary school. “We didn’t think that just firing half of our teachers and hiring whatever was available out there was necessarily going to be a higher-quality option than what we currently have.”

In some cases, schools have promised to hire instructional coaches and other support staff, only to find a dearth of qualified applicants, said Caitlin Scott, a consultant for the Center on Education Policy, a research organization in Washington that has closely studied SIG implementation in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan.

“The money doesn’t create new people,” she said. “The problem of staffing a hard-to-staff school is more complicated, and we haven’t really solved that problem yet.”

Management Demands: Some principals shuffled from one school to another

Finding principals with track records in turnarounds has also been tough. In some cases, districts shuffled principals from one SIG school to another — in New York City, the new leader for Grover Cleveland High School came from Queens Vocational High School, another school getting federal improvement funds.

And in other places, jobs sat vacant while districts searched for the right candidate. DePue High School, in the tiny town of DePue, Ill., didn’t find a new principal until its second year in the program. Baltimore, which brought in outside groups to manage five of its seven SIG schools under the little-used “restart” option, saw a big turnover in principals: Two of those schools went through three principals in the first year, while another had its principal replaced mid-year.

Some local leaders remain skeptical of the principal-removal requirement.

“I question the research behind that particular element,” said Barbara VanSweden, the superintendent of the Fitzgerald School District, in the metropolitan Detroit area. “I look at our situation and the fact that our principal has begun to make improvements in the area of student achievement.”

But others see the approach as promising. More than half of 46 state Title I directors—who oversee programs for disadvantaged students—said that replacing the principal was a key element to improving student achievement in “transformation” and “turnaround” schools, according to a survey by the Center on Education Policy.

Juggling the Schedule: Extended learning time difficult to implement

Even interventions with broader political support — such as adding more learning time to the school day — have bumped up against realities such as teacher contracts and bus schedules. Some schools have simply juggled instructional time already in their schedules.

Other schools funneled their dollars into before- or after-school programs. Memorial Middle School, in Orlando, Fla., now has a “zero” period at the start of the day, a time when students can come an hour early and work on reading and math skills using computer programs, or finish homework. The school also offers Saturday classes.

Still other schools have added time to the regular day — though sometimes not much. Weston Preparatory Academy, in Detroit, tacked 15 minutes onto its school day. West Seattle Elementary School in Washington state used its SIG grant to add four days to the school year and an extra 15 minutes every day.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh, 15 minutes, that’s nothing,’ ” said the Seattle school’s principal, Vicki Sacco. “But every moment counts.”

Paying Outsiders: Results in Pueblo, elsewhere raise questions about consultants

Faced with the technical and logistical challenges of putting $3 billion in SIG money to use on a tight deadline, states have enlisted an array of consultants, including for-profit companies, nonprofit turnaround specialists and postsecondary institutions.

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But tracking that cash — and determining whether schools have gotten their money’s worth — remains daunting. The federal government does not tally how private educational consultants have benefited from the turnaround windfall, nor do most states, according to an analysis published by The Denver Post in February. In about 15 states that agreed to tally such spending, an average of roughly 25 percent of all SIG money went to private consultants.

In Colorado — one of the few states willing to do such a tally — consultants took home $9.4 million, or 35 percent of the state’s $26.6 million in SIG money in the past two years. That’s paid for instructional coaches for teachers, leadership coaches for principals, analysts to pore over student data, and pricey professional-development seminars on changing school culture.

Even some contractors who offer services to SIG schools have raised alarm bells about the lack of accountability for outside groups.

“These schools require truly comprehensive services, from instructional to operational support,” said Jennifer Shea, a senior program manager at the School Turnaround Group, part of the Boston-based Mass Insight Education, which is working with six states on turnarounds. “Very few organizations currently have the capacity do this work. … I don’t think these types of providers necessarily have the wrong intentions, but we need stricter standards for how partners are being selected and monitored.”

The program has seen some well-publicized stumbles along the way. Several news organizations, for example, have looked at the experience of one consultant working in SIG schools in Colorado, the New York City-based Global Partnership Schools.

GPS was founded by Rudy Crew, a former head of the New York City and Miami school systems, and by Manuel Rivera, a former superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., schools. Mr. Crew left the company last fall. The company operates SIG schools in Baltimore; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Pueblo, Colo.

In Pueblo, for example, where GPS has a $7.4 million contract, student performance slipped further at five of the six schools the company operates, The Denver Post reported.

A fourth-grader at Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary writes in response to her teacher's question about a story read by the class. Reading and writing are a key focus.

At the GPS-operated school in Baltimore, Garrison Middle School, nearly every indicator of quality has dropped since GPS took over in 2010, The Baltimore Sun found.

But GPS seems to have had much more success at Harding High School in Bridgeport, where early indicators, like attendance and school climate, have improved, according to staff and students, The Connecticut Mirror reported.

In an email to Education Week, Rivera said that turning around a school is a lengthy process, and that states shouldn’t expect big changes in student achievement overnight.

“Some of the most-respected researchers in America concur that transforming or turning around a chronically low-performing school is a multiyear process,” he stated.

States also have taken some steps to address provider quality. Fourteen states have offered districts an approved list of outside providers, according to the CEP survey of Title I directors.

And some states and districts are beginning to rework their relationships with consultants. Indiana is revisiting its approach after a number of school districts switched consultants or severed their relationships in favor of providing services in-house.

“We don’t want anything off the shelf from them,” said Jim Larson, the state’s director for school improvement and turnaround. “We want them to work for the schools. We’re asking, ‘How can you be an extra set of eyes in the classroom?’ Then we’re shaping the scope of their services around schools’ needs.”

Snyder, the Education Department’s SIG chief, said that districts have brought in outside providers to help with the “challenging work” of turning around schools.

The program “gives districts the flexibility, through a rigorous screening process, to seek outside help that will meet their local needs,” Snyder said. “And on the rare occasion that an external provider doesn’t work out, we have seen districts end that relationship and find another solution.”

Future in Doubt: Turnaround program on thin ice with Congress

Meanwhile, the turnaround program is on thin ice on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are sympathetic to those clamoring for greater local flexibility on turnarounds, including teachers unions, principals’ organizations, and advocates for district and state officials.

Looking ahead
“But the important question is: If this all goes away, can we keep up the momentum?”
— Baltimore principal

“We’re concerned that locking into a specific set of models might hinder innovation in the school-turnaround space,” said Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration has made its vision of the School Improvement Grant program — with its four signature models — a top priority in proposals to rewrite the NCLB law. But the headwinds are strong.

A U.S. Senate committee, as part of its push to overhaul that law, has approved a change that would let states come up with their own improvement strategies and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have sought to defund the program, and the House education committee recently approved a bill that would wipe it out entirely.

Even if the program survives, it seems likely that the nation’s lowest-performing schools will never see another turnaround bonanza like the stimulus law’s $3 billion in SIG money.

That has local officials already worrying about what may happen when the dollars disappear.

“The challenge for me is to create structures that will sustain over time, so when the money goes away, we can still do it,” said Lionel Jackson, Jr., principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts High, in Baltimore. “But the important question is: If this all goes away, can we keep up the momentum?”

A national effort

This story was produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association. Additional reporting was contributed by Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, Brian Rosenthal of the Seattle Times, Nancy Mitchell of Ed News Colorado, Liz Bowie and Erica Green of the Baltimore Sun, Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun, Jennifer Jordan of the Providence Journal, Jennifer Brown of the Denver Post, Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star, Antoinette Konz of the (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, and Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.