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.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”