Concerns Linger Over Grants For Worst Performing Schools

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(Host) Two years ago, a group of ten schools were identified by state education officials as the worst in Vermont, based on their New England Common Assessment , or NECAP scores.  

It was a controversial process. But for the schools identified, there was a big pay off, $8.5 million from the federal government, spread over three years, to improve.

To get a share of the money, however, schools had to agree to make drastic changes and do elaborate follow up reporting.   

More than halfway through the grant, VPR’s Nina Keck visited one of the schools to find out what impact the money and changes are having.  

(Keck) Fair Haven Union is just a few miles from the New York state border. Over 400 students attend the high school, 45 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged. 

(Blanchard) "Hey Paul, how you doing? Hey are you guys playing tonight? Good luck."      

(Keck) Brett Blanchard walks the halls between classes. Blanchard became principal in 2007 and says at the time, the school’s test scores were significantly below state averages. But he says he and his staff worked hard to change that and by 2010, students at Fair Haven Union were exceeding state averages.  

Blanchard says that’s why he found it so ironic that Vermont’s Department of Education identified the school as one of the worst in the state.

(Blanchard) "I do know that my complaint, and I was vociferous at the time and it caused some issues, we were being held accountable after the fact – that’s bizarre. It’s like being called a name that has no validity but you’re still being called a name. In 2010 when we’d gotten the money,  we’d already brought our test scores near the top."

(Keck) But John Fischer, of Vermont’s Department of Education, says because the grant process began in 2009, the state had to use the data it had – NECAP scores from 2007 and 2008.   

He says they also had to take into account drastically different school sizes in Vermont.  

(Fischer) "So what appears to be on the surface, looking at some numbers, a relatively easy selection process, it’s never that way when we talk about assessment scores and students over time and small numbers."

(Keck) For Fair Haven Union, making the infamous list meant they were eligible for $550,000 in federal funding. Brett Blanchard says considering all the strings attached to the three year grant, he’s still deciding if it was worth taking.

(Blanchard) "It’s insulting to think that this money came in and saved us. The money was used for higher order, more meaningful learning and we had to fight to use that money in that manner."

(Keck) To get the funds, Blanchard says they had to choose one of four options to overhaul their performance. The most drastic called for shutting the school down or changing it to a charter school. Another option called for firing the principal and half the teaching staff.  

The last option, which all the Vermont schools chose, required firing principals who’d been on the job longer than two years and instituting a host of instructional reforms and professional development. At Fair Haven Union, Blanchard was allowed to keep his job. The school expanded its freshman transition program and increased teacher training. But Blanchard says they’re spending the majority of their grant on technology.

(Keck) In Sandy Kuehn’s ninth grade civics class for example, every student is using an iPad. The school purchased 20 heavy-duty laptops for the science department, increased the number of notebook computers available and enhanced the school’s wireless capabilities. And then there’s Clarena Renfrow.

(Renflrow) "And I’m the technology integration coach at Fair Haven Union High School."

(Keck) Renfrow’s full-time position didn’t exist at the school prior to the grant.

(Renfrow) "My duties really included concentrating on the faculty."

(Keck) Providing teachers with help in the classroom, one on one or in workshops. Teacher Sandy Kuehn says it’s been a godsend.

(Kuehn) "Because I’m not a tech savvy person so it’s always been a little difficult for me. But having Clarena, having the tech support is absolutely essential because she helps me help the students and helps the students use the iPads and in this particular case use Keynote.

(Keck) But is all the new technology helping Fair Haven Union do a better job educating kids? Sandy Kuehn and Clarena Renfrow think it is.

(Kuehn) "Absolutley."

(Renfrow) "When you do a worksheet and you fill in the blanks do you really learn it and is it enjoyable? But when you ask them to create something and share it and it’s actually going to go on the web for other people to see, it’s a game changer, and they remember everything. "

(Keck) Maybe. While Fair Haven’s NECAP scores went up from 2007 to 2010, their most recent 2011 scores dropped in every subject but science. Brett Blanchard says accountability is important but making kids sit for hours to answer multiple choice questions is out dated.

(Blanchard) "That’s the part that causes me just to want to scream. We are still having people from the outside, and some people from inside say no no no, we need to make sure the kids do well on these standardized tests. And I’m thinking really? How often do we do them as adults."

(Keck) Rather than memorize names and dates, he says kids today need to know how to find information from a variety of sources. And they need to be able to put it together in a way that makes sense. He says that’s what they’ll need on the job as grown ups and he says thanks in part to the federal grant, that’s what his teachers are now better able to incorporate in the classroom.

(Blanchard) "How many kids are publishing? How many kids are using the tool to be display their work for more worldwide comment? Then how many kids are actually having to present in a multi-media format that would more replicate the business world. And we are absolutely getting there."

(Keck) Critics of the federal grants wonder how schools like Fair Haven Union will be able to continue costly new programs once their funding runs out. Renfrow’s position for instance is just for three years. And Blanchard himself admits that the grant has been time consuming and costly to oversee.  

John Fischer says Vermont’s Department of Education will spend more than $600,000 to provide school liaisons and ensure federal requirements for the grants are being met.  

(Fischer) "Nationally the discussion is going to be after all is said and done with these funds did we get anywhere?"  

(Keck) Fischer says this year’s NECAP scores were not as high as they’d hoped at a number of the schools receiving money. But he says the benefits of the funding may show up in other ways. Work done at Fair Haven Union for instance may help the state learn how to better integrate technology in schools.

Efforts at Rutland High School, another grant recipient, may encourage more project based learning and inter-disciplinary team teaching.  Yet even with all that, Vermont has opted out of the school improvement grant process this year and last saying the ranking process and federal requirements, especially having to fire veteran principals are too onerous. There was also a lot less money on the table.  

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.

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