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Fixing failing schools: do school improvement grants build sustainable change?

State and federal programs have poured billions of dollars into some of the nation’s worst schools since 2009 in hopes of making improvements. But once those schools show progress, the money disappears, and they risk sliding backward.

Commodore John Rodgers Elementary and Middle Schoolin East Baltimore is one of those schools. After drastically improving test scores, school climate, enrollment and absenteeism, it is no longer eligible for turn around funding.

Commodore John Rodgers Elementary and Middle School in East Baltimore is one of those schools that made remarkable improvements.

On a crisp September day, the school’s principal, Marc Martin, greeted each of the school’s 800-plus students by name as they filtered into class. In 2010, this was one of the worst schools, not just in Baltimore, but in Maryland. It ranked so low that it was eligible for a federal School Improvement Grant, often calledturnaround funding, available to thebottom five percent of the nation’s poorest schools or Title One schools.   

“The school was in trouble and the biggest indicator was that enrollment had dropped to the 200’s where a few years earlier it was in the 900’s,” Martin said.   

With that many students gone, the school faced the threat of closure. Commodore John Rodgers applied for school improvement money in 2009. The next year, with a transformation plan in place, Martin came in to redirect the school with the help of the additional $2 million a year in federal money the school won.

Martin walked in expecting chaos, but what he actually saw was “something I think that was a lot more sad to me, which was just a place where there was no care,” Martin said. “Students had their heads on desks. They were disengaged. There wasn’t real instruction taking place.”

Martin started with physical improvements.

“One of our priorities was having families and students, when they came in, recognize this place is different,” he said while giving a tour of the school.

Where the walls were once drab and graffitied, they’re now brightly painted and decorated with college pennants. New computers line the library, and the classrooms are brightly lit.

“We thought that was important for a community that really didn’t see that type of change,” Martin said.

Martin hired new teachers who developed enrichment programs and established weekly paid professional development for those teachers.

Most importantly, the school day was extended by an hour and a half.

“Obviously if our students are two, three, four grade levels behind in reading or math, there needed to be a support for that, and so we had an extended day,” he said. “If you walk through our building, our kids are intentional; they are purposeful; they are working hard.”

Theschool’s test scores are now on par with those at other schoolsin Baltimore and the school has improved other measures, such as absentee rates. But as a result, the school does not qualify for the additional federal dollars this year.

Often schools slide backward after the extra funding goes away, said Nancy Grasmick, the superintendent of schools in Maryland for 20 years who has been closely involved in transforming failing schools around the state.

“It is a very precipitous drop to suddenly have nothing after you’ve had it,” she said. “The circumstances of the children, don’t change. The challenges of the teachers don’t change. The challenges of the principal doesn’t change.”

Martin said his school is not yet stable enough in terms of the culture, parents’ trust and the social and home lives of the students to prevent a backslide. He advocated looking at funding differently.

“The conversation needs to turn around,” he said. “What is the cost of funding a school that has students that are years and years and years behind?”

But not every school has been as successful as Commodore John Rodgers. Some fail to improve despite all the federal money and a turnaround plan. Two schools in Baltimore that received turnaround money in 2010 closed during the third year of the school turnaround process.

At Commodore John Rodgers, middle schoolers have a weekly community meeting.

“I would like to acknowledge Mr. Jackson from yesterday. When I didn’t get a problem on the worksheet, he explained it to me in a better way,” said a student who stood in the small cafeteria. “He showed me a deep understanding of how to do it.”

With the federal money going away, Martin is trying to hang on to some things that helped generate gains, like these weekly meetings where students connect with one another and talk about the school’s mission and culture.

A productive school environment is contingent on “a strong school culture,” Martin said. “Based on the fact that our school was targeted as a failing school something needed to be done. And when you build structures like this and you have them going, they need to be sustained.  Any loss of funding is going to compromise building that culture.”

Martin said he expects that the loss of money will make this school year his most challenging yet.

“We have great school leaders. It’s just the need is so great — it’s not enough,” he said. “And we’re getting overcome by the amount of need that’s it’s hard to continue when you’re carrying a school that has 10 new teachers. There’s a weight that isn’t necessarily a burden that others are facing at other schools.”

The new federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and local districts more flexibility in tackling the worst performing schools, and Martin said that gives him hope.

Still, he said, he wonders whether federal funds would be better spent fueling his school’s progress a little longer as opposed to being directed at an entirely new school.