$3.5 billion available to help failing schools

The Obama administration will spend at least $3.5 billion to push local officials around the country to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals, and applications for the money are now available to states.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan hopes to see the 5,000 worst-performing schools, about 1 percent of all U.S. schools, turned around in five years under the Title I School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.

The administration is beefing up the federal school turnaround program, which was created under the No Child Left Behind law championed by former President George W. Bush.

"As a country, we need to get into the turnaround business," Duncan said in a statement. "Adults need to have the courage to make these tough decisions and do right by our kids."

The president doesn’t have the power to close and reopen schools himself. That authority rests with local school districts and states.

But federal officials have dangled an incentive for the turnaround program, which gives money to states for school districts to overhaul the lowest-performing schools. Districts will have to compete for grants.

Applications for the money, made available to states Dec. 3 and due Feb. 8, should result in a list of about 1,200 schools that states have targeted for turnaround, the federal Education Department (ED) said, adding that the eventual goal is 5,000 schools.

The funds are made available to states by formula, and states will distribute the money through competitive grants to school districts. As they compete for the funds, school districts must identify the schools they want to transform, and then determine which of the four following models is most appropriate. If a school has begun implementation of one of these four models or components of one of these models within the last two years, it may apply to use SIG funds to continue to implement the full model.

• Turnaround model: Fire the principal and at least half the staff, and reopen the school with new personnel.
• Restart model: Turn a school over to a charter school operator or other management organization.
• School closure: Close the school and send students to higher-achieving schools in the district.
• Transformation model: Replace only the principal and take other steps to change how the school operates.

In selecting the districts to which funds will be awarded, states must use specific criteria outlined by ED. In their applications, states must identify their persistently lowest-achieving schools and must prioritize funding for these schools. These schools are defined as:

Tier I: Any Title I school in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring that…
• Is among the lowest-achieving 5 percent of Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring in the state, or
• Is a high school that has had a graduation rate of less than 60 percent over a number of years.

Tier II: Any secondary school that is eligible for, but does not receive, Title I funds that…
• Is among the lowest-achieving 5 percent of secondary schools in the state that are eligible for, but do not receive, Title I funds, or
• Is a high school that has had a graduation rate of less than 60 percent over a number of years.

Tier III: Any state Title I school in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring; state education agencies will set exact criteria, which could include schools with low absolute performance but high growth rates over a number years, or the bottom 6 to 10 percent of Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring.

A special focus will be on fixing middle schools and high schools, especially "dropout factories" where two in five kids don’t make it to graduation, ED said.

Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, has experience with school turnarounds: Chicago targeted several public schools for turnaround while Duncan was still in charge.


School Improvement Grant applications

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