This is one of three pieces published as part of a joint effort of Education Week, the Education Writers Association, and The Hechinger Report to report on School Improvement Grants.
by Andrew Brownstein
For the casual visitor, it's easy to miss that Southeast High School in rural Kansas—once among the lowest academic performers in the state—is in the midst of a profound transformation.
Like many other Kansas schools, the building in Cherokee (population: 722) shows the telltale signs of a suffering economy. Bus routes have been cut, as have supplies. Custodians, secretaries, and cafeteria workers took an eight-day pay cut. During the harsh winters, students bundle up to make it through classes where the temperature hovers at an uncomfortable but cost-saving 68 degrees.
But look deeper, and another picture emerges.
Each student is assigned a MacBook for the year. Teachers use iPads on classroom walk-throughs designed to improve instruction and boost student engagement. And the entire school improvement process is underscored by consultants from Cross & Joftus, a Washington-area consulting firm.
The varied portrait of school funding is not unique to Southeast High. It is one of roughly 1,200 schools in the nation to win a federal School Improvement Grant, given to those in the bottom 5 percent in the country to spark radical improvements in school culture and student performance. In the aftermath of the recent recession, many of these SIG schools now have funding to do things they've never done, at the same time that they're hamstrung to pay for many of the basic things educators typically take for granted.
Southeast won a $1.4 million grant at a time when Kansas cut its education funding to the lowest levels since 1999. The grant allowed the school to take risks that have paid off: It has leapfrogged from among the worst high schools in the state to achieving "standard of excellence" ratings in reading and math, as well as 100 percent proficiency in science.
"The grant has been a stop-gap lifesaver to us in many ways, enabling us to continue moving forward when everything else is being cut," said Glenn Fortmayer, the superintendent of the USD 247 Cherokee school district.
While there is cause for optimism nationally—two recent reports found that states and districts thought SIG funding was helping—there are also fears that the slow pace of economic recovery could undermine whatever gains schools are achieving through the program.
A report in October from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy institute in Washington, found that elementary and high schools in at least 37 states received less funding in the 2011-12 school year than they did the year before, and that in at least 30 states, school funding now stands below 2008 levels—often far below. The report warned of the impact of sustained decreases in the funding of federal initiatives like SIG, noting that "deep funding cuts hamper [schools'] ability to implement many of these reforms."
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, implemented an austerity agenda that cut $1 billion from education in the state's 2011-12 fiscal year. Philadelphia, which has a nearly $3 billion school budget and educates some 12 percent of Pennsylvania's public school students, bore roughly one-fourth of that burden.
Despite evidence of improvement in some schools, the state is skeptical that the district can sustain those gains and is leveling a more serious charge—that Philadelphia is using SIG funds to back-fill the cuts to state and local budgets.
"We started to delve into things and ask, 'Where's this teacher? Where's this program? You said you were going to do this—where's the results?' And they simply can't produce them," said Renee Palakovic, the division chief for federal programs at the Pennsylvania education department.
More troubling, at least one school altered its SIG grant midstream to allow for the hiring of a science teacher whose position Ms. Palakovic said was eliminated because of the cuts. Philadelphia explained that the new hire was necessary to keep class sizes small, but the state suspects the hiring represents an instance of the district using federal money to supplant state and local funds.
Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, denied that Philadelphia was using SIG funds to back-fill cuts.
Nationally, federal officials said they were unaware of other suspicions regarding the use of SIG money for back-filling. Jason Snyder, who heads the turnaround office at the U.S. Department of Education, reported that at least 12 schools nationally had their grants terminated or not renewed for performance reasons.
Among SIG schools, there is near-universal concern about how to sustain programs once the grant funds run out.
It's a palpable fear at Harding High School in Bridgeport, Conn., where a $2.2 million SIG grant has sparked a fragile recovery.
With the help of Global Partnership Schools, a New York City-based consulting firm, Harding shows some encouraging signs. Daily attendance is up sharply, now at 85 percent, compared with 60 percent a year ago. And the number of failing grades fell to 26 percent in the first quarter of the school year, down from 34 percent a year ago.
While acknowledging the gains, Bridgeport's new superintendent, Paul G. Vallas, considers himself largely unimpressed. Given the size of the grant, he expected more visible signs of improvement.
And he worries about what will happen in the future to specific SIG-funded programs.
"When you spend it as if it's part of the operating budget, you have a tendency not to spend it efficiently or effectively, and you create a cliff, which means any success that emanated from the [grant] will quickly disappear once that cliff is hit," Mr. Vallas said. "This money is going to run out."
Andrew Brownstein is an editor with Thompson Media Group in Washington. He writes about federal K-12 education policy.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association, and Education Week. Reporting was contributed by Robert A. Frahm of The Connecticut Mirror, Dale Mezzacappa of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun.