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Federal School Improvement Grant funds ebb

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the past three years, Kanawha County has received nearly $4 million in federal stimulus money to help turn around its lowest-achieving schools. Now that the funding is drying up, school administrators are planning how to sustain the improvements they've made through the future, without the benefit of any extra money coming in.

Last school year, about $300,000 was spent among six of the county's schools on cutting-edge supplies to help students learn, and another $300,000 has gone to train teachers during conferences.

More than $730,000 paid salaries to recruit more teachers and "interventionists," who are aides meant to help boost achievement. That's about 40 percent of the county's total federal funding for the 2011-12 school year.

Since the stimulus money was awarded, nearly all participating schools have seen improvement in standardized state test scores and have met adequate yearly progress.

"We've been able to do a lot of things, as far as technology and materials, that we wouldn't have been able to have or do without the money," said Malden Elementary Principal Jenny Sayre. "It's also afforded us staff. That's the big thing: How do we continue next year when we don't have these positions?"

Sayre said that's been the main concern for her school from the very beginning of the process. That's why she and her staff have considered sustainability along the way through training sessions that focus on setting obtainable goals and evaluating weaknesses.

When the year ends, Malden Elementary will lose two interventionists who were paid through School Improvement Grant funds.

"Everyone is trying to learn what the others -- who will have to leave the school -- do so that we can continue those things," she said. "It's not like when they're gone we don't have to do that work anymore."

The SIG funds have provided the elementary school with interactive smart tables, laptops, iPads and cameras.

But there are benefits that don't require any money, Sayre said.

"We've learned how to increase student engagement and perform better class evaluations. We've really practiced all aspects of the training we've received so that we can do it on our own," she said. "That doesn't cost any money. That's something we can continue without worrying about funding."

Sacrifices were made in order to receive the money. Five Kanawha County principals had to resign in 2009 for schools to even be allowed to accept the funding, and administrators dealt with strictly regulated policies.

"It's been hard work," Sayre said, "but it's pushed us to do what's best for our kids' culture, and we now have a wonderful school."

Cedar Grove Middle School will lose three staffers, plus additional "transformation specialists," once the funding ends this year.

"We've had several positions that were not available without SIG: interventionists for math and language arts, technology integration specialists," Principal Melissa Lawrence said. "It sounds very scary, because all of that money that went toward creating those positions will be gone, but there was also a great amount of support that was built into that."

With the funding, Cedar Grove has upgraded its library and computer labs. More importantly to Lawrence, a chunk of funding has put a much-needed spotlight on her school.

The attention to Cedar Grove's needs helped draw more parent and community support than ever before, Lawrence said. The school now has a functioning PTO for the first time in years.

"This process pushed people to get involved. That, in and of itself, will generate sustainability," she said. "We have seen tremendous growth over the past three years, and our teachers have worked very closely with the outside consultants that have helped guide us in that direction. They've taught us so much, and we are going to take those strategies and build upon them year after year."

But Michelle Blatt, executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of School Improvement, said the additional positions that SIG monies brought in don't necessarily have to go.

Counties have the choice to transfer other federal funding, such as Title I money, to continue the use of personnel brought in under the program.

The Department of Education recently wrapped up a session with the state's SIG schools that focused on sustaining the improvement schools made, Blatt said.

"We're talking about sustainability," she said. "When the money goes away, principals will know how to prioritize the things they've been doing that they can hold onto, no matter what. We want to make sure that everything doesn't stop when the funding does."

Blatt believes the SIG funding has served its purpose: to improve teaching skills and school environments in order to increase student achievement.

"The grants were secured to bring in additional experts to boost staffing, and ultimately, student achievement," Blatt said. "The majority of the money was spent on staffing because that was the intent of the money from the start -- to hire outside experts to help.

"Kanawha County, in particular, has done a great job at putting a lot of work into that," she said. "Of course, it takes more than three years to turn around low-performing schools, but we are pleased with the gains we've seen so far."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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