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The Daily Dish: Schools, States Work to Improve with School Improvement Grants

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July 06, 2015 03:10 pm


The Daily Dish digs deeper into one of the day’s top news stories on K–12 education. Make sure to add High School Soup to your RSS feed for all the latest updates and follow the Alliance on Twitter at @All4Ed for more education news.

The School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, which was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), is the federal government’s primary mechanism for turning around the lowest-performing schools. Under the Obama administration, in order to receive funds, schools most commit to a transformation, turn around, restart, or school closure turnaround models to support better outcomes for students. And many schools have accepted the challenge to do so.

Erin Duffy from the Omaha World Herald wrote Monday about the changes Wakonda Elementary School Omaha, Nebraska is hoping to accomplish with its $1.6 million in school improvement funds over the next five years. Wakonda will become the first school in Nebraska to try the “turnaround” model of school improvement. Duffy says the school, which is located in a high-poverty area of Omaha, faces challenges such as low morale among students, fitting the needs of special education students, and open teacher positions. But the school is optimistic about its mission. “That mission.’ writes Duffy, “includes a technology initiative and a longer school day.”

In Little Rock, Arkansas, Baseline Elementary School students struggled for years with low test scores and overall academic distress in the heart of the city’s Latino community explains Cynthia Howell of the Northwest Arkansas Democratic Gazette. But a new principal, teachers, and $6.8 million over five years in SIG funds will help lead the way to transformation. Howell adds, “Another new piece will be two home-focused school advisers at the school. Both will serve as a bridge between the school and parents to engage parents in their child’s school. The home-focused advisers, for example, will contact a parent if a child has been absent or is otherwise struggling to determine what is needed to help the child.”

A February report from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) indicates that urban schools have made significant improvements with the federal funds, finding high schools are holding back fewer students in ninth grade and higher percentages of students are reaching grades eleven and twelve.

Despite the promise, the future of funding available for schools like Wakonda Elementary might be in jeopardy. On June 24, the House Appropriations Committee voted to approve a fiscal 2016 spending plan that would slash the current funding level for the U.S. Department of Education by $2.8 billion – and eliminate twenty-seven education programs – including School Improvement Grants. The Senate Appropriations Committee approving cutting federal education funding by $1.7 billion following its markup, without the stipulation of getting rid of SIG. Instead, the committee proposed to cut $56 million from the program.

Unlike Wakonda and Baseline, some states, districts, and schools have not been eager to follow the stipulations of the SIG program. Politics K-12’s Alyson Klein explains that years of disagreement from state and federal leaders over the SIG models for improvement led to the U.S. Department of Education granting states the opportunity to develop their own methods of improving low-performing schools. But as Klein notes, just five states – Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island – actually developed individual plans.

She describes New York’s plan, for example, “to build on strategies that have worked at its most successful SIG schools” and also include a partnership between schools and “an organization with a strong turnaround track record, with an emphasis on either a) college-going, b) career and technical programs, or c) community and student support programs.”

Klein says it’s possible some states may have taken the ED up on a newly offered model that would allow state to partner with organizations who show strong track records for school turnaround in lieu of establishing their own initiatives. However, she adds, “It’s unlikely that model was wildly popular, since very few states contacted the list of organizations on the department’s approved list ahead of turning in their SIG applications on April 15.”


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