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.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”