News Column

Will Extra Money, Attention Help Florida's Low-performing Schools?

April 30, 2012

Leslie Postal

More than 100 students at Memorial Middle School in Orlando arrive on campus an hour early most mornings for extra math and reading work.

Fifteen full-time tutors work in Evans High's reading classes, providing extra help where students need it most.

Teachers at Poinciana High in Osceola County get together to plan lessons, thanks to an extended schedule.

And teachers at Leesburg High in Lake County earn bonuses for sticking with their jobs and helping boost student test scores.

All these academic perks are available because of a federal-grant program that is pumping more than $3 billion into the nation's worst-performing schools.

Seven Central Florida schools are among the 102 state schools awarded the three-year grants, which amount to yearly payouts of about $650,000 to $734,000 per campus. At most of the schools, the money has paid to extend school days, hire extra staff, provide bonus pay, buy new technology and beef up teacher training.

These efforts are part of a broad national push to overhaul and improve the country's "persistently lowest-achieving schools" -- or the bottom 5 percent of public schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls it "some of the most important work going on in the country."

Known as the federal School Improvement Grant program, it is an ambitious but as-yet-unproven national experiment that has led to rapid-fire changes at some schools and left others scrambling to find new principals, implement longer school days or meet other requirements, according to a project led by Education Week, the Education Writers Association and the Hechinger Report. The Orlando Sentinel also participated.

"This is not the Oldsmobile of comprehensive school reform," said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University. It 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."

Florida educators say there have been small improvements already, but they don't expect these schools to become immediate academic stars.

"You can't turn around a school in a year -- you can't," said Kathryn LeRoy, chief academic officer for Duval County schools, which has 13 campuses in the grant program.

Most of the participating schools in Florida enroll large numbers of students who typically struggle academically, notably youngsters from low-income families, and have earned D's or F's from the state in years past. Oak Ridge High near Orlando and Celebration and Gateway High schools in Osceola also got grants.

Because of the program's demands, Central Florida teachers and administrators feel added pressure to improve student performance on campuses where fewer than half can read at grade level.

"We've all worked hard. He's exhausted. I'm exhausted," said Leesburg teacher John Arnold, referring to his school principal. "The question is: 'Have we accomplished something?' Well, we'll see when test scores come out."

The schools have a number of goals to meet to earn their grant money the next year, from improving student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to boosting attendance to increasing graduation rates.

In Florida, the changes required under the federal-grant program dovetailed with what the state already demanded of its struggling schools. So many of the reforms, such as putting proven principals and teachers on these campuses, already were under way but without the benefit of federal money.

"I think SIG really came in at a vital time in Florida," said Fred Heid, bureau chief for school improvement at the Florida Department of Education, and a former Orange principal. "We were able to eliminate the argument that it is an unfunded mandate."

At Memorial, there is now a "zero period" at the start of the day when students can come early to do extra reading and math or finish homework.

They get to work on new grant-paid-for iPads and laptops, and that helps draw them in, said teacher Janice Costin.

"It's very, very encouraging to see the kids come early," she added.

Sixth-grader Marquise Abrams, 12, said he asks his mother to take him to school early most mornings.

"It helps me learn my math, " he said. He gave a nod to the iPad on which he was doing fraction drills and added, "It's more fun."

At Evans, Principal David Christiansen said the grant money has helped in many ways but has done the most good by paying for tutors to work in reading classes.

Teenagers who recoil from participating in front of a large class do much better with the small groups, which the tutors provide, he said. The school saw improvements in FCAT reading in 2011, the first year the tutors were in place.

"It's a gigantic help," said reading teacher Sherrall Chandler. "The kids get double instruction."

Tutor Tamara Birdsong likes that, while Chandler's teaching, "I can pull aside anyone who looks lost."

At Poinciana, Principal Belynda Pinkston said the grant means her teachers have time to work on lessons together and to learn to be better teachers.

"The effective delivery of instruction ... that's where the pedal hits the floor," she said.

But even with the benefits, these schools are not easy places to work. Pinkston said a "sense of urgency" permeates her campus, despite a jump from an F to a B two years ago.

Leesburg Principal Bill Miller has hired three quarters of his staff since 2010, as many teachers left once the recent push for improvement began.

Memorial Principal Shelia Windom said the teacher life span in a school such as hers often is three to five years.

Her students are good kids, but so many face serious stresses at home, and those issues play out at school.

"It's very hard," she said.

Heid, the Education Department official, agreed.

"They are heavy-lift schools," he said.

And they will still need extra help once the grant runs out, so he is already asking district administrators: "How are you going to continue to support this?"

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