Money Left Behind

Published on
by
The Fresno Bee (California)

Money Left Behind

Lincoln Elementary is among a small number of U.S. schools turning down Title I funds -- and gaining independence.

by
Susie Pakoua Vang

LINDSAY -- Last fall, one little elementary school in this poor farm town did something startling: it said no to nearly $250,000 in federal funds.0126 05

In exchange, Lincoln Elementary gained something its teachers considered even more valuable: more independence.

"We want to do a better job than we've been able to do and we want to do that by being flexible," Principal Pam Canby said.

Lincoln is among a small number of U.S. schools -- no one can say how many for sure -- that have gained flexibility in following federal education mandates by turning down Title I funds.

In rare cases, whole school districts have rejected Title I as a way to opt out of the federal academic accountability system set up by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. But most heed the warnings of state and federal educators who caution that the cost of giving up Title I can be steep.

The federal dollars are distributed to state education departments, which then give the money to school districts based on poverty and low test scores. Districts then decide which schools receive Title I funding, with priority given to schools with 75% or more low-income students. Funds can be used for staff development, supplemental materials and literacy and math coaches.

In return, schools receiving the money must show test results demonstrating that an ever-escalating share of their student bodies meet proficiency standards in English and math.

No Child Left Behind has met strong opposition since it became law. Some educators and parents say the program is under-funded and forces teachers to follow a standard script, rather than adapt to the needs of their students.

"Many teachers no longer can be innovative in their teaching," said Mike Green, a California Teachers Association representative and Lindsay Unified teacher. "A lot of that has to do with the fact that you are required to teach to the test."

Some local and national educators share Green's frustrations. Canby said Lincoln educators have been "diligent in marching to the tune of Title I." The school worked with a board of education experts who evaluated and monitored the campus' academic progress under the federal program.

The school also saw a major shift in staffing. Canby was brought in about five years ago after Lincoln failed to reach annual academic targets, Lindsay Unified Superintendent Janet Kliegl said. More than half the teaching staff is new.

District officials took the unusual step of giving up $243,000 -- out of its budget of $4 million -- to free the school from Title I mandates because too much time was spent on paperwork, when time could be better spent on more innovative teaching efforts.

Kliegl said Lincoln was a good candidate for the change because overall it is a high-achieving school, but there are groups of students, such as English learners, who miss federal targets. This calls for a more flexible approach, she said.

Tom Rooney, Lindsay Unified's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said No Child Left Behind requires a great deal of staff time on paperwork.

"That is necessary for some schools and it's necessary for some districts," Rooney said. "We've made the decision that that's not a necessary burden to put on [Lincoln]."

In past years officials spent Title I money on computers, learning programs and literacy and math coaches to try to meet the standards.

Now, Lincoln's staff will use creative student programs that teachers would not have had time for under provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. These include teaching via the Internet, far-ranging field trips and a renewed focus on science and the arts.

"We want our kids to go out on the road, go to the ocean, go to the mountains," Canby said. She wants students to appreciate music and art, which often were dropped from classrooms in order to focus entirely on improving test scores under the No Child Left Behind Act.

"An effective citizen is a person who is fluent in the arts. It's not just about reading and writing," she said.

Canby said she also wants to see a strong focus on science, which previously took a back seat to English and math.

Although the school no longer is obligated to meet federal mandates, the campus still must meet the state's Academic Performance Index benchmarks, which measure annual academic growth. Index scores range from 200 to 1,000, with all schools working toward 800 or better.

Lincoln is still far from the state goal. Last August, test results from the California Department of Education showed Lincoln dipped 38 points from its previous score of 691.

It's unclear how many other schools nationwide have followed the same path, but Lincoln is not alone.

Thousands of miles away, the Community Consolidated School District 21 board in Wheeling, Ill. has rejected about $250,000 in Title I for the past three years, said Kate Hyland, an assistant superintendent. She said consultants were assigned to underperforming schools, which resulted in several meetings, but little progress.

"It's a very punitive law. ... Our board really took a stand in saying, 'We are philosophically opposed to the law,' " Hyland said.

Other California educators have inquired about refusing the federal dollars as a way to gain more local control, but it's difficult to track how many schools, if any, followed through, said Jerry Cummings, who works for the state's Title I policy office.

While rejecting Title I isn't yet a trend, "it's potentially the front end of what could be a wider movement," said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University Teachers' College in New York City.

Janie Castro, Lincoln Elementary's Parent Teacher Organization president, said she supports the new vision for her school. She noted Canby prepared the school to do without Title I, partly because she used previous Title I money to buy long-term resources, such as computers and software. Said Castro: "We know that she's going to make this work."

While the school can do without Title I this year, next year could bring some changes. Nancy Frank, the school's math coach, said the lack of money may mean returning as a classroom teacher. Frank said that means she may not have time to go into several classrooms each day to teach students or offer one-on-one teaching sessions with new staff members.

To help make up the difference, the school has asked for financial help -- and some is already trickling in. A citrus company provided Lincoln a $20,000 grant to help the campus be a model for rural school reform, Canby said.

Mike Wood, a science consultant who was on Lincoln's alternative governance board, said it isn't easy for the school to give up more than $240,000. But he said it's important for local educators to dictate what is best for students.

Said Wood: "Let's make learning fun again."

The reporter can be reached at svang@fresnobee.com

© 2008 The Fresno Bee

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