the sig picture

Turnaround funds fuel schizophrenic spending during recession

Chart showing change in states' school funding since 2008. (Click to enlarge.)

New York City’s controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country’s lowest-performing schools. In the second of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education WeekThe Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Andrew Brownstein looks at the strange juxtaposition of School Improvement Grants against a context of state budget cuts — an issue that is less acute in New York than in many other states but relevant nonetheless.

For the casual visitor, it’s easy to miss that Southeast High School in rural Kansas — once among the lowest academic performers in the state — is in the midst of a profound transformation.

Like so many other Kansas schools, the building in Cherokee (population: 722) shows the telltale signs of a suffering economy. Bus routes have been cut, as have supplies. Custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers took an eight-day pay cut. During the harsh winters, students bundle up to make it through classes where the temperature hovers at an uncomfortable, but cost-saving 68 degrees.

But look deeper, and another picture emerges.

Every one of those students is assigned a MacBook for the year. Teachers use iPads on classroom walkthroughs designed to improve instruction and boost student engagement. And the entire school improvement process is underscored by consultants from Cross & Joftus, a Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm.

The schizophrenic portrait of school funding is not unique to Southeast. It is one of roughly 1,200 schools in the nation to win a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), given to those in the bottom 5 percent in the country to spark radical improvements in school culture and student performance. The backdrop of the recession means that many of these schools have funding to do things they’ve never done at the same time that they’re hamstrung to fund many of the basic things educators typically take for granted.

State cuts

Southeast won a $1.4 million grant at a time when Kansas cut its education funding to the lowest levels since 1999. The grant allowed the school to take risks that have paid off: It has leapfrogged from among the worst high schools in the state to achieving “standard of excellence” ratings in reading and math, as well as 100 percent proficiency in science.

“The grant has been a stop-gap lifesaver to us in many ways, enabling us to continue moving forward when everything else is being cut,” said Glenn Fortmayer, superintendent of the USD 247 Cherokee school district. “If we didn’t have the grant, there are so many things for kids we couldn’t even begin to contemplate doing on our own general money.”

While there is some cause for optimism nationally — two recent reports found that states and districts thought the funding was helping — there are also fears that the slow pace of economic recovery could undermine whatever gains schools are achieving through SIG.

A report last October from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy institute, found that elementary and high schools in at least 37 states received less funding in the 2011-12 school year than they did the year before, and in at least 30 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels — often far below. The report warned of the impact of sustained decreases in the funding of federal initiatives like SIG, noting that “deep funding cuts hamper [schools’] ability to implement many of these reforms.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said as much in testimony before Congress in 2010: “It is very difficult to improve the quality of education while losing teachers, raising class size, and eliminating after-school and summer-school programs.”

Shortfalls in Philadelphia

That quote may seem prophetic to school officials in Philadelphia, where epic budget shortfalls have led district leaders to announce that they are unsure they’ll be able to meet their payroll obligations in July.

It’s a dizzying descent from just two years ago, when the district received more than $51 million in SIG funding for 27 schools, the largest total for any city in the country. The size of the grant was in many ways a vote of confidence in former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, whose vision of school turnaround mirrored the federal government’s. Among other initiatives, Ackerman ushered in “Promise Academies,” poorly performing schools that got larger infusions of cash to support extended learning time, new teachers and coaches and a “parent ombudsman” to respond better to community concerns. When SIG came along, it was a natural fit.

But after the first year of the grant, newly elected Republican Gov. Tom Corbett implemented an austerity agenda that cut $1 billion from education. Philadelphia, which has a nearly $3 billion school budget and educates some 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s public-school students, bore roughly one-fourth of that burden. The state cuts were the largest contributor to a budget shortfall that ballooned to more than $700 million — all but $22 million of which had been filled by the district as of March through cost-saving measures. Ackerman was ousted, and many believe her commitment to the Promise Academies, despite their cost, contributed to her exit.

It struck some as absurd that the city was keeping positions like parent ombudsmen and student advisers — both funded by SIG — while it was cutting teachers and not paying for textbooks. Massive teacher layoffs, which by contract were to be conducted according to seniority, led to a lawsuit when the district sought to exempt the mostly young Promise Academy teachers in order to preserve the program in those schools. After a lengthy court battle, the district lost, and the staffs the academies had carefully assembled were decimated.

Adding to the bitter taste left by the episode is a study performed by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, which found that the academies performed better than a matched control group on every academic indicator measured. The state, however, is skeptical that the district can sustain those gains and is leveling a more serious charge — that Philadelphia is using SIG funds to back-fill the extraordinary cuts to state and local budgets.

‘Back-filling’ concerns

The first major sign of trouble came when federal monitors visited the city last spring. The U.S. Department of Education challenged the expenditure of $9.2 million — 73 percent of the district’s first-year SIG budget — on summer school, according to a report of their findings. The monitors said the district could be running afoul of a federal law that forbids the use of federal funds to supplant state and local funds. In November, the state responded that Philadelphia had been unable to provide documents to support the summer-school expenditures from 2009, adding that it “had little confidence in the ability of [Philadelphia] to provide accurate information.”

The state’s suspicions grew after a subsequent monitoring visit this February. “We started to delve into things and ask, ‘Where’s this teacher? Where’s this program? You said you were going to do this — where’s the results?’ And they simply can’t produce them,” said Renee Palakovic, division chief for federal programs at the state education department. “They can’t produce a body and say, ‘This person is the school-based instructional leader.’ They can’t maintain their extended-day programs because they have no money, so they’ve started to shut them down.”

More troubling, at least one school altered its SIG grant mid-stream to allow for the hiring of a science teacher whose position Palakovic said was eliminated due to the cuts. Philadelphia explained that the new hire was necessary to keep class sizes small. Under the law, reducing class-size is a proper use of SIG funds, but the state suspects this represents another instance of the district using federal funds to supplant state and local funds, a violation of federal law.

The visit left Palakovic deeply skeptical about SIG’s chances for long-term success in Philadelphia: “I just wrote an e-mail to my superior saying, ‘The results in Philadelphia are going to be slim to none because they’re not really offering anything additional in these schools. There’s nothing new. There’s no reform. It’s just keeping the boat afloat.’ ”

Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, said Philadelphia was working to address the state’s concerns, but denied that Philadelphia was using SIG funds to back-fill cuts. Feather Houstoun, a budget specialist on the School Reform Commission — the city- and state-appointed body that governs the district — acknowledged that “successive belt-tightening had reduced the ability of the school district to track and monitor” its grant funding.

Returning funds

Federal officials said they were unaware of any other suspicions regarding the use of SIG funds for back-filling. Jason Snyder, who heads the turnaround office at the U.S. Department of Education, reported that at least 12 schools had their grants terminated or not renewed for performance reasons.

“Some states and districts have taken the courageous and rare step of terminating grants where the money is not being used well,” he said. “It’s important that the funds go to those schools committed to using them effectively to help their students and to doing things differently than they have before.”

Nonetheless, Philadelphia’s conundrum may underscore the importance of a finding from a March report by the Center on Education Policy, an independent education think tank. While more than half of 46 states that responded to a survey indicated they had adequate levels of staff expertise to help SIG recipients, only slightly more than a third felt their state had adequate amounts of staff and time to assist with program implementation, including monitoring.

The center’s report, which examined SIG implementation in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan, highlighted another aspect of federal funding with economic overtones. While districts had to list all of their schools that were eligible for funding in order to apply, they were granted considerable leeway in terms of how thinly they spread their funds — so long as no individual school received more than $2 million per year.

Haves and have-nots

This meant that states like Michigan, which had more than 100 schools in the bottom 5 percent, funded only 28 schools. In Saginaw, there are two high schools in the bottom 5 percent: Arthur Hill High School, which received a $4.4 million SIG grant, and Saginaw High School, which did not get funding.

“In Michigan, the non-grantee schools were not able to implement all of the things they thought would help them improve their schools,” said Caitlin Scott, a consultant who worked on the report. “Several weren’t able to do things like hire coaches to help them with instruction or extend learning time the way they wanted to.”

It is too early to answer a more compelling question: whether Arthur Hill High is showing greater gains in student performance due to the SIG funds.

The difference between the SIG haves and the grantless have-nots is playing out more starkly in Las Vegas, where the Clark County School District is in arbitration with its teachers union to plug an $80 million budget shortfall.

But due to the national scrutiny of SIG grants, Clark County is pouring additional resources — aside from the grant money — into helping turn around its SIG schools.

While the district is trying to pass a $10 billion capital improvement plan to rehabilitate its aging schools — many with failing air conditioners and leaky roofs — the district funded renovations to the campuses of all of its SIG schools last summer. Dozens of maintenance crew members cleaned all the campuses, some of which had been left in abysmal shape. Western High School, one of the oldest in the district, completed a new broadcast journalism studio, library and science/nursing classrooms. Renovations at another building, Chaparral High School, ran as high as $2 million to clean up graffiti, etched windows and feces in the bathroom. All of these funds were reallocated from the district’s maintenance fund, which pays for annual school upkeep.

The cliff

With the education sector of the economy emerging slowly from the recession, some states are anticipating level funding for their education budgets next year, while others are hopeful they’ll be able to restore some cuts. This hasn’t quelled a near-universal source of angst for SIG schools — the issue of how to sustain programs once the grant funds run out.

It’s a palpable fear at Harding High School in Bridgeport, Conn., where a $2.2 million SIG grant has sparked a fragile recovery.

With the help of Global Partnership Schools, a New York City-based consulting firm, Harding shows some encouraging signs. Daily attendance is up sharply, now at 85 percent, compared to 60 percent a year ago. And the number of failing grades fell to 26 percent in the first quarter of the school year, down from 34 percent a year ago.

While acknowledging the gains, new Superintendent Paul Vallas, a nationally known reformer, considers himself largely unimpressed. Given the size of the grant, he expected to see more visible signs of academic improvement.

And, like others, he worries about the future. No one knows what will happen to SIG-funded programs such as the reading laboratory, the summer and Saturday classes, the hallway “climate specialists” or a Virtual Academy for online learning.

“When you spend it as if it’s part of the operating budget, you have a tendency not to spend it efficiently or effectively, and you create a cliff, which means any success that emanated from the [grant] will quickly disappear once that cliff is hit,” he said. “This money is going to run out.”

Andrew Brownstein is an editor with Thompson Media Group in Washington, D.C. He writes about federal K-12 education policy. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association and Education Week. Reporting was contributed by Robert A. Frahm of the Connecticut Mirror, Dale Mezzacappa of the Notebook, and Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun.

Superintendent search

Nashville school official is one of four finalists to become Newark’s next superintendent

Sito Narcisse

A top Nashville schools official is one of four finalists vying to become Newark’s next superintendent.

Newark’s school board has not announced the finalists, but Sito Narcisse, currently chief of schools of the 88,000-student Metro Nashville Public School system, is in the running, Chalkbeat has learned. Narcisse, who has also been a high-ranking official in two large Maryland school districts and a principal in Boston and Pittsburgh, confirmed the news on Monday. The son of Haitian immigrants who spoke French-Creole at home as a child growing up on Long Island, he later helped open two high schools for recent immigrants who were still learning English.

The other finalists, Chalkbeat has previously reported, are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso, Newark Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, and Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon. (Alonso previously declined to comment, and Leon did not respond to an email.)

Newark’s last state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, stepped down on Feb. 1 when the school board officially regained control of the district after 22 years of management by the state. As the district transitions back to local supervision, it must adhere to a state plan that stipulated that there be a national search for the next superintendent and three finalists for the full board to vote on. However, the state last month granted a request by the board to name four finalists instead of three.

The finalists will introduce themselves to the public at a forum on Friday, though the audience will not be allowed to ask questions. The school board will then interview the candidates in private on Saturday, before they are expected to make their selection at the public board meeting on May 22.

Narcisse was also a semifinalist for the superintendent position in Duval County, Florida until Monday, when the school board there voted not to advance him to the second round of interviews, according to the district’s website. (Unlike Newark, that school system posted all the candidates’ applications online and will livestream the school board’s interviews with the finalists.)

Alonso, the other candidate from outside Newark, was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ next superintendent before withdrawing his name last month. Both he and Narcisse may face an uphill battle in Newark, where several board members and many residents have said they would prefer a local educator to run the school system now that it is back in local hands after decades of state oversight.

In an interview Monday, Narcisse told Chalkbeat that if he was hired in Newark he would work hard to get to know the district and “become a part of that community.” He added that many of the schools he oversaw in Tennessee and Maryland served low-income students who dealt with trauma and poverty similar to the kinds faced by many Newark students.

“I know I’m not from Newark,” he said. “But the children of Newark have the same set of issues, the same set of challenges.”

Narcisse began his career as a high-school French teacher in a suburban district outside Nashville, before opening a public school in Pittsburgh and then taking over a struggling high school in Boston. He later held district leadership roles in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he helped design the new schools for immigrants still learning English.

In 2016, he became chief of schools for the Metro Nashville system, the second-highest position in the district, where he is responsible for overseeing 169 schools. In that role, he helped establish a high school where students can earn associate’s degrees, brought new science and technology programs into the middle schools, and participated in a public-private partnership to boost students’ reading skills, he said. His salary is $185,000 per year, according to his application for the Duval County position.

He said that he has absorbed several lessons over the years on how to improve struggling schools: Find a strong principal, provide lots of staff training, and invest in extra support services for students. He also cited another lesson that could be especially apt in Newark, where many residents rejected the sweeping policy changes enacted by Cami Anderson, a prior state-appointed superintendent.

“The other part is to not to do reform to them — but to be a part of the work with them,” he said, referring to community members. “That’s how change and sustainability happens.”

family matters

Lashing out at de Blasio administration, Mulgrew says educators lack paid parental leave because of ‘gender bias’

PHOTO: Philissa Cramer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew tore into the city Monday for not providing paid parental leave to city teachers, calling the situation a case of “gender bias.”

Mulgrew, whose union is 77 percent women, was among the leaders testifying about the need for a paid parental leave policy Monday at a joint hearing of the City Council’s committees on education and civil service and labor.

In some of his harshest criticism of the de Blasio administration, Mulgrew criticized city leaders for saying leave should be negotiated in contract talks and come with concessions.

“I believe this is clearly gender bias on behalf of the City of New York and I do believe now it’s being used completely as a bargaining chip against our union, the union with the high female [membership],” Mulgrew said. “So I’m quite aggravated and pissed off at the city on this whole thing.”

Under the Department of Education’s current policy, teachers who want paid leave after having a baby must use accrued sick days. The policy applies only to birth mothers, not educators who become parents through surrogacy or adoption.

The UFT’s fight, spurred in part by a petition that went viral last fall, comes after the city extended six weeks of fully paid time off to its non-union workforce in 2016, covering about 20,000 managerial employees.

The city has pointed out that those workers made concessions, including giving up raises and vacation days, in exchange for their leave. The administration has also estimated that extending this program to all UFT members could cost $1 billion over four years.

Bob Linn, the city’s labor commissioner, testified Monday that paid leave was an issue that would be addressed during negotiations with the UFT, whose contract expires in November. “We will be reaching agreements on this issue,” he said.

Here’s what three UFT members who spoke Monday told the council:

Carolyn Dugan, a special education teacher in Manhattan at PS/IS 180

“I went into labor at my school because I was trying to save all my sick days for my maternity leave.
I wanted to maximize the little time I had with my newborn, so instead of taking a few days to rest before the baby was born, I worked up to very last moment and I ended up going into labor at
work.”

Eric Rubin-Perez, a school counselor at the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Queens

“I had managed to save over 65 days in my bank that I had always planned on using for child care leave. I attended a UFT workshop on paternity leave in the fall of 2013. To my shock, I learned that as a father I was only allowed to use three personal days. It didn’t matter how many days I had saved in my bank, I was not able to use any of them. All those times I made the treacherous commute in the snow to my school in Elmhurst, Queens, from my home in Suffolk County, or when I came back to work after oral surgery didn’t matter, because I could not use any of my days. My husband who worked on Long Island got six weeks of paid paternity leave so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get anything.”

PHOTO: Jessica Jean-Marie
Teacher Jessica Jean-Marie returned to work last week.

Jessica Jean-Marie, teacher in New York City public schools

“Last week, I returned from maternity leave after 11 weeks from having my second child. I tried working until I went into labor so that I could have a full 12 weeks — six weeks using sick days and six weeks off payroll on unpaid child care leave — at home with my son. I couldn’t do it. The physical pain and the mental stress became too much. I worked up until the week of my due date, hoping my son would come sooner than later so I can maximize my leave. He arrived three days past due.”