School Improvement Grants: Did They or Didn’t They? (Improve Schools)

Flash back to 2008 (if you dare). The country (the world) was an economic nightmare, banks and brokerage firms were dissolving into thin air, and people were scared. We’ve crept back step by step, but during those dark days, if you were engaged in work in public education, and cared about struggling schools, you were very concerned about sources of survival funds. Cities and towns, dependent on tax revenues, were preparing to slash jobs and cut programs just to keep doors open.

Enter a democratic president whose number one goal and mission was to expand educational opportunity for everyone. Enter ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds to fill the gaps we would have faced. I remember the management tasks attached to those funds, see these gray hairs? Our district was audited, people with clipboards and attitudes were in evidence, but somehow, I didn’t mind. There was something comforting about knowing that the dollars were being scrutinized. Our district had followed the rules to the letter and the penny, so the clipboards went away and we carried on. Blessedly they didn’t return. It was a great lesson in “get it right the first time”.

There were other initiatives that followed. Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants appeared or were added to. Something surprising happened (at least in my field of vision). There were very few questions being asked in the districts themselves about efficacy of the dollars, not whether they were spent ethically and correctly, but were the funds improving schools and academic achievement? I’d love to have you comment on this blog if you saw things differently.

True to its nature, the federal government has produced reams of reports that attempt to answer those questions. SIG Data (School Improvement Grant) has been collected and analyzed on its own website. The reports measure gains by math, reading, cohort, location, grade spans. In general (and I encourage you to read through some of the materials on the website), schools have benefited from the influx of cash to tighten leadership accountability and to adjust the onerous union restraints on teacher hiring and seniority that have tied the hands of district administrators for decades. Throw rotten tomatoes at me if you want, but a superintendent and his/her team must be able to assign principals to troubled schools as they wish. This single change, I believe, has made the improved academic achievement in cohort schools a reality. The work within leadership was not an explicit goal of the grants, but there certainly was a connection. The concept of “turnaround” became a topic of discussion among teachers and school leaders alike.

From the site:
“The SIG program is a key component of the Department’s (Department of Education) strategy for helping states and districts turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Under the Obama Administration, more than 1,500 schools have implemented comprehensive turnaround interventions aimed at drastically improving achievement. Cohort 1 schools began implementing SIG turnarounds during the 2010-11 school year and Cohort 2 schools began implementing turnarounds during the 2011-12 school year. The brief analysis that accompanies today’s announcement (press release Dec. 11, 2013) shows continued progress across various SIG models, school levels and locations. Despite historically difficult learning environments, SIG schools have increased proficiency rates in math and reading, demonstrating the importance of targeted investments over time.”

The funds have allowed district leaders and unions to work things out, the unions by and large have seen the writing on the wall, and have agreed to concessions in order to be part of the solution. The other effect of the funds is to help schools integrate new standards into lackluster curricula, buy new materials and supplies, and energize instruction across subject areas and grade spans. I’ve seen major changes in some turnaround schools. A new energized principal, changes in building culture, infusion of new technology and curriculum improvements have worked wonders.

This blog is support for grant writers in schools. Here are some sites that will help you know what federal grants you may be eligible for, and how to apply:
Find Your State– Federal Grants available through your state department of education
The titles – federal grants for schools.
Federal Register
G5 – federal grant application portal

Let me know if your school has participated in SIG activities, how are you doing?


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About Neva Fenno

Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS, has been a special education teacher, school library media specialist, curriculum specialist and grants manager for several urban school districts in New York and Massachusetts for 30 years. As grants manager for 7 years, she managed up to $28,000,000 a year in federal, state, foundation and corporate grants from application through fiscal administration. She has hundreds of stories to tell, not all successes, but from each story there is a lesson to be learned.

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