Low-ranking Pennsylvania schools seek School Improvement Grants

Posted: August 16, 2010

Many of Pennsylvania's lowest-ranked schools are seeking three-year, multimillion-dollar federal grants to help improve student achievement.

The Philadelphia School District, which has 98 schools on the state's list of lowest performers, has applied for the School Improvement Grants for 50 of them.

Also among the 19 districts and five charters statewide seeking the money are the Chester Upland, Southeast Delco, and William Penn districts and two city charter schools.

Most grants would be for three years, starting in the fall, with a maximum award of $2 million per year for each school in the program. Pennsylvania schools are getting a total of $141 million.

The money comes at a price: Schools accepting it must agree to adopt federal government-specified "interventions" that would lead to staffing changes and other shifts in how they operate.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is expected to announce the list of recipients this month.

In New Jersey, the state announced in June that $45 million in School Improvement Grants would go to 12 schools. Locally, two schools - Cramer Elementary and U.S. Wiggins Elementary in Camden - were selected to share $5.4 million. The Camden district had submitted proposals for three additional schools.

In Camden's application for Wiggins and Cramer, various reforms, including considerable staff development, were proposed.

In addition, $28 million will be awarded in New Jersey next school year.

The School Improvement Grant program began in 2002, but much more money is available now because of the one-time addition of almost $3 billion in stimulus funding.

What is new this year is the requirement that districts seeking the money must agree to implement one of four so-called intervention plans. The plans are similar to those of another federal program, Race to the Top, that also pumps money into low-achieving schools.

Under the first and most widely used School Improvement Grant intervention model, schools that get the money must replace principals who have been on the job for more than two years. Learning time for students must also be increased.

This approach also requires the schools to use a teacher-evaluation system that includes student achievement as one of the factors in gauging how well educators are doing their jobs and whether they get to keep them.

Most districts don't now use student test scores to evaluate teacher performance. Philadelphia is developing such a plan, part of the latest teacher contract.

The grant program's second intervention plan calls for all those changes plus the replacement at least 50 percent of the staff at schools that get the money.

Under the third approach, districts would bring in an outside management group to run the schools. In the fourth approach, districts could close the schools and transfer students to higher-achieving ones.

Districts that have at least nine schools on the state's low-achieving list must use the second, third, or fourth intervention plans in at least half of their schools that get the grant money.

Philadelphia included all 13 of its Renaissance and Promise Academy schools scheduled for overhaul in the coming school year in its application. The seven Renaissance schools will be turned into charters and the six Promise Academy schools the district will oversee will have at least half their staffs replaced. The district did not say which other schools were included in its grant request, what intervention plans would be used in them, or how much money it sought.

The district would use the grant money to implement its Imagine 2014 plan, which calls for smaller classes, more elementary school counselors, and more early college options for high school students, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

The two Philadelphia charters applying are the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School and the West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School.

Delaware County's Chester Upland district seeks $2 million a year for two schools: Chester High and Columbus Elementary. The extra money would allow it to hire more staff for tutoring and college counseling, Superintendent Joyce Wells said.

The district already has a teacher-evaluation system that includes student performance as a factor, Wells said.

The Southeast Delco district, also in Delaware County, seeks about $5.5 million over three years for Academy Park High School, Superintendent Stephen Butz said. "We want to turn teachers into mentors and guides for students and parents as well as being educators," he said.

The plan would add 20 minutes a day for student instruction at the high school, and seven days to the district school year, Butz said.

The mandated conditions for receiving School Improvement Grants, especially linking student performance to teacher evaluations, are regarded by some teachers and their unions as implying that teachers are solely to blame for low student performance.

Butz said he had worked to dispel that notion. "If we are to be successful, it will be by the teachers taking the turnaround process and making it work," he said. "It has to be a true team effort. . . . There cannot be teacher bashing in our district if we are to be successful."

Delaware County's William Penn School District seeks $3 million a year total to help it improve achievement at three schools: Park Lane Elementary, Penn Wood Middle School, and Penn Wood High School.

Superintendent Joseph Bruni said the money would allow the district to expand the use of an approach it already uses in language arts to its math, social studies, and science programs.

The district would also set up mandatory six-week summer-school programs for all rising seventh and ninth graders.

The district has asked the state Education Department to make an exception and not require the removal of middle school principal Brian Wilson, even if that means risking some of the funding it wants, Bruni said. "The school has been showing improvement. . . . We're not willing to move him," he said.

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com.

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