With a highly diverse population and more than half of its students receiving free or reduced lunch, the Tacoma School District struggles to get students to meet state standardized test benchmarks.
This year, the state’s uniform bar requires 58.7 percent of middle school students to pass math and 82.5 percent to meet reading goals. In Tacoma, about a third of middle school students in each grade met state standards in math. About half met standards in reading.
To help school districts across the country meet increasingly strict standards, the federal government created a School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The program offers money to districts to improve academics and graduation rates among the bottom five percent of schools that fail to meet state test standards.
This year, the federal government doled out nearly $1.4 billion nationwide. Washington will receive about $7.3 million for the 2011-2012 school year. Tacoma was one of four school districts to receive a slice of the state’s SIG funding last year, for a total of $11 million over a three-year period.
Each school year, the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction awards between $50,000 to $2 million in SIG money to school districts that show the greatest need, until the SIG piggy bank dries up.
“Need” is helped determined by a school’s Title I eligibility, a federal program that gives money/resources to schools with a high percentage of poor students. More than half of all students in Tacoma receive free or reduced lunch, the most common indicator of poverty.
Tacoma district officials argue that poor schools have been singled out in the SIG programs, and that little is being done to correct underlying social problems.
The system in place almost always guarantees poorer, high-poverty schools, and people in high-need demographics, are placed on the list, superintendent Art Jarvis argued.
Until the whole system changes, this is going to continue being a common trend, he added.
Schools qualifying for SIG may be renewed every three years, pending availability of federal school funding. Tacoma has 23 “schools in improvement,” and half of its 10 middle schools have been identified as eligible for SIG.
“We have a problem,” said Dan Voelpel, Tacoma School District director of communications. “We can’t just turn our cheek. We have to do something and the best course is to go for it (with the grants).”
Once schools are identified for SIG, they are separated into three tiers.
· Tier One: schools that receive federal Title I money, and Title I high schools with less than 60 percent graduation rates for three consecutive years.
· Tier Two: schools that are eligible, but do not receive, Title I money. Also, Title I-eligible high schools with less than 60 percent graduation rates for three consecutive years.
· Tier Three: all other Title I schools that are not necessarily consistently low performing, but still need financial assistance (OSPI gives priority to Tier One and Two).
Districts can choose whether or not to accept the grant money. If districts accept the money, they are required to reform schools using one of four federally mandated intervention models: turnaround, restart, school closure or transformation.
The models serve as a skeleton, leaving plenty of room for officials to shape the way the models work in their schools, Voelpel said.
“There’s plenty of room to make it unique,” he added.
In Tacoma, Stewart and Giaudrone are in the midst of the turnaround model, which began last year. Principals of both schools were fired and half of the teaching staff was replaced. Giaudrone is in the beginning stages of launching an international baccalaureate program to challenge students with advanced placement courses. The program was previously held at Hunt before it closed.
District officials chose to close Hunt last year and re-enroll students in other higher-achieving district schools.
Officials at Stewart chose to focus its curriculum around math and science. The school’s principal also leads the district’s innovative high school, Science and Math Institute (SAMI). Stewart administrators also lengthened school days.
A new Hunt facility, approved by voters before the SIG announcement in 2010, will reopen with new staff and programming in 2015.
Jason Lee Middle School is under the transformation model, and has adopted a new curriculum, expanded teaching time, and developed teacher and principal effectiveness programs.
The only model not being used, restart, is not currently legal in Washington because it involves converting schools into charter schools.
After districts launch a model, the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction monitors school progress over the next three years and districts are required to make regular reports to OSPI on student achievement.
Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding – student test scores. If test scores do not improve to meet state standards within the three-year grant period, districts can choose to continue with the intervention model or revert back to their former methods of teaching.
Tacoma district officials said they are confident the schools already undergoing the SIG model process will show improvement.
“We fully expect that at the end of three years we will see significant improvement,” Voelpel said.
Clare Jensen contributed to this report.