Applications due for turnaround schools in Minnesotaby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Brooklyn Center School Superintendent Keith Lester said good-bye this week to a man he considers one of the best principals in the state.
Bryan Bass had to resign from his school - Brooklyn Center High - because it was identified as one of the state's 32 lowest-performing. To receive a share of federal improvement money, the school must replace its principal.
On Thursday, the 32 schools had to meet a deadline to tell state officials how they would spend that money.
The lure of money is not enough for some districts, and others are lamenting some of the choices they've been forced to make.
Lester said that might be a good move for other low-performing schools, but not Brooklyn Center High.
"I'm not happy with the system; I think it wasn't realistic," he said. "It came down from one place and assumed it was going to fit in everyone's backyard, and it didn't."
The 32 so-called turnaround schools have to follow one of four Washington-prescribed models for improvement. It's part of a federal program for the nation's worst-performing schools. Aside from firing principals, schools must implement new systems to evaluate teachers and principals; provide more robust professional development for teachers; and increase learning time for students.
Lester bemoans what he calls a one-size-fits-all approach, but he also says he can't ignore the money.
The federal government is spending more than $3 billion on the turnaround effort. Minnesota's share is $34 million. After keeping five percent for administrative costs, there will give Minnesota about $32 million to spend on just 32 schools.
State officials call it an unprecedented amount of money for so few schools. But Joann Knuth, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary Schools Principals, said the money comes with a horrible label.
"To initially be identified as a low-performing school is a very, very difficult thing for any school -- and that impacts morale; it impacts community perception," Knuth said. "So, it continues to be ... [an] almost 'onerous' process for many folks."
But the initial shock of having that label does seem to be wearing off in some districts.
"You can feel the change from that initial disappointment to 'I think it's going to be good'" said Vicky Hoffman, a grant and testing coordinator with the Cass Lake-Bena school district in northwestern Minnesota. "We're good teachers and we're a good school - but we can be better. So why not?"
The district's high school is one of the 32 schools. Hoffman said some of the changes Cass Lake is proposing -- such as more teacher professional development -- would be hard to afford without the turnaround money.
Cass Lake also had to fire its high school principal. But unlike Brooklyn Center, where that principal is jobless, Cass Lake moved Principal Pernell Knutson to the top job at its middle school.
Officials in St. Paul and Minneapolis say the turnaround process worked well for them, though they understand the angst that comes with such a label. St. Paul has two schools on the list, Minneapolis has seven.
But the money is not enough for at least two small, rural districts. Officials in Butterfield and Greenbush say they will not apply for the money.
Butterfield Superintendent Lisa Shellum acknowledged that she's passing over potential $1 million for a district with an entire budget of less than three million.
"Certainly it would be welcome, but the strings attached to it for our size are overwhelming," she said.
Shellum said her district should have never been on the list. She said the formula used to create it only used test scores to grade her school -- which she said doesn't tell the whole story.
"No single assessment can measure a student's total learning." Shellum said. "They're blaming us using single assessments but they're telling us in their own stuff that no single assessment can measure it."
The state Education Department stands by the process it used to create the list. Spokesman Bill Walsh says it's disappointing to hear Butterfield will walk away from so much money.
Schools won't know exactly how much money they will receive until the state awards the grants, which officials hope to do by the end of the month.
- All Things Considered, 07/01/2010, 4:54 p.m.