In 2010, Alachua County was awarded more than $2 million through the School Improvement Grant Section 1003(g) to help turn around the three lowest achieving schools in the district.
In spite of increasing improvement from individual students, the three-year grant did not produce the desired effect of pulling the schools from their overall low achievement, said Everett Caudle, director of project and staff development for Alachua County Public Schools.
The grant was awarded to improve student performance, which, until recently, was charted through FCAT achievement data. It now uses the Florida Standards Assessment data. Despite a slightly higher percentage of students improving after the grant, a school’s grade is the macro view, he said.
The schools were not failing, which showed growth. However, the grant has not made them A schools, Caudle said.
Charles W. Duval Elementary School was awarded $759,293, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elementary School was given $627,776 and Hawthorne Middle/High School was awarded $635,832.
“When it comes down to looking at the results on the state tests and looking at whether the schools have improved their grades that in itself really has not happened,” he said.
But he said that doesn’t mean there haven’t been changes in improving the availability of school supplies.
During the first year, the money was spent on much-needed resources like computer software, new curriculums, books and extended day time. These efforts are still in place. They also added teachers and support personnel to reduce class size and were able to pay teachers bonuses.
The following years, the district was able to offer specialized training for teachers and add additional technology for classrooms.
The schools even went up in letter grades after the 2010-11 school year, but returned the following year, Caudle said. With education, dollars going into the system can take several years for an infusion of programs to make a difference, he said.
It’s frustrating that the schools are still struggling academically, he said, but it’s not because the children aren’t trying. The children coming from high-poverty areas don’t get exposed to the types of background information that a typical middle or upper class student might have, he said.
In many cases, they start way behind their peers and by the time they hit third grade, it’s reflected as low scores on assessments, Caudle said.
When the district applied for the grant, it had to choose from one of four models to implement in the schools. Alachua County chose the transformation model, which stated the principal had to be replaced, comprehensive curriculum had to be reformed and extended learning time and other strategies would be implemented. The other models included turnaround, restart and school closure.
The turnaround model has the district replace the principal, screen existing school staff, and rehire no more than half the teachers while improving the school through strategies like curriculum reform. With the restart model, schools need to be converted or closed and re-opened as a charter school. The school closure model has students sent to higher-achieving schools in the district.
Caudle said the district reassigned principals before the grant was given. He said it’s easy to blame the principals, but they were working hard with obstacles in high-poverty areas.
Lawson Brown Jr., principal for Charles W. Duval Elementary School, said he has worked to transform students’ attitudes about education, especially with the grant gone, the school has been struggling and is missing some resources. He became principal during the 2013-14 school year.
“Just pouring money into schools doesn’t fix the problem,” Brown said.
Through organization and training teachers from the funds, schools can become better, he said.
Every school is different but when schools deal with large at-risk populations, any extra money takes away a major hurdle of having to raise funds for materials, Brown said. Instead, administration can use creative ways to support students in education.
Through the grant, the extended day time allows his students more time to be engaged and prepared for academics. He said they can gain more language skills and have access to a mobile computer lab to practice math activities and do research.
There have been some success stories of how this grant has turned schools around. A Baltimore high school cut its dropout rate in half and raised test scores, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s blog.
The grant has given more than $5.5 billion to more than 1,500 schools across America to improve them since 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website.
Sue Wilkinson, director of grant management for the Florida Department of Education, said the department received its third three-year grant for districts to apply for after competing with the federal government for the best amount of funds. From there, schools applied to be selected for the grant. A committee then chose the schools that could be improved based on how they scored within the competition.
When people are involved and supportive there can be a major turnaround in school systems, she said. A child is not going to automatically go from being a D student to an A student overnight. What it takes are many small milestones and the involvement from both parents and teachers.
“An uneducated society is a disaster,” Wilkinson said. “Educators want to see kids get better, that’s the whole goal.”