Obama school turnaround effort includes 34 Minnesota schools

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
March 1, 2010


St. Paul, Minn. — President Barack Obama announced more funding Monday that will be used to help 5,000 of the nation's poorest-performing schools over the next five years.

The funding is meant to entice schools to make changes that will, among other things, reduce those schools' dropout rates.

In Minnesota, that will mean sharp attention to 34 schools.

The White House estimates about 7,000 students drop out of school every school day. Minnesota has traditionally enjoyed a higher graduation rate than most states, but officials say there are still schools that need a lot of help.

The federal education department is making millions of dollars available in so-called 'school improvement grants' this year and in coming years to deal specifically with the worst of the worst.

In Minnesota, that list includes to 34 schools which the state Department of Education identified after analyzing three years of test score and graduation rate data.

Later this spring, the state will receive more than $34 million to spend on those 34 schools. Most of that money comes from the federal stimulus package.

Pat King, with the state's education department, said the funding boost is 'significant' for this effort, but it's also a shift from how the current No Child Left Behind law attacked the problem of the worst-performing schools.

"The intent with No Child Left Behind, in my perspective, was 'let's give the districts a chance; they know best which of the options you should choose,'" King said. "But I think what we found over time was that you need to be more prescriptive if you're going to make a difference."

The Obama administration is using money as a carrot to require a more stringent game plan for improving the worst performing schools.

The boost in funding will entice more schools to apply for the money, but they'll now have to follow one of four models for improvement.

One model, the 'turnaround,' involves firing the principal and at least half of that school's staff, a scenario that played out in Rhode Island last week. The state approved a plan to fire all teachers at a school in the town of Central Falls, a move that drew praise today from Obama.

Other models include re-opening the school as a charter school, closing the school entirely, and a final model where a school addresses four areas, including teacher effectiveness.

An official with the U.S. Department of Education said the program isn't just pushing for incremental changes in school performance, but asks states to "dramatically change what is happening" in schools.

The 34 Minnesota schools that will be part of this turnaround effort range from Orr High School in the north, Worthington Language Academy in the southwest, and Northview I-B School in the suburban Osseo district.

Seven of the turnaround schools are in the Minneapolis district, two in the St. Paul district, and two in the Red Lake School District in northern Minnesota.

The Red Lake schools serve American-Indian students in the Red Lake Nation where fewer than 1 in 4 students there are proficient in math and reading. Fewer than a third of students graduate in four years.

"We know that we're a turnaround school," said Red Lake Superintendent Brent Gish. "We've begun the initial stages of gathering the data to make well-informed decisions and to develop a plan that, for the good things we're doing -- they'll continue to grow. But other areas that need some change, we'll be prepared to do that."

Gish said each improvement plan will have to be specific to that district. Red Lake, he said, is still a place where current students are the first in their family to earn high school diplomas, where there is a higher rate of teen pregnancy, issues that might not be as crucial in other districts.

The state will hire an outside evaluator in coming months to look at the 34 schools and recommend which of the four models each should adopt.

From there, the schools will apply for funding from the state with the goal of having the turnaround money in place before the start of the next school year.