Photo: #When students return for school this fall, some will notice big changes as a result of a federal program that provides funding for -- and puts new requirements on -- Minnesota's lowest-performing schools.
Photo: #Pat King is director of the Office of Turnaround Schools for the MN Dept of Ed. She announced grants totaling $24.5 million for 19 schools at a press conference on Thu. July 29, 2010.
Photo: #Ron Buckanaga is director at Four Directions Charter School in northeast Minneapolis. The school serves mostly American Indian students and was listed on the state's list of 'persistently lowest-performing' schools this year. Buckanaga did not apply for turnaround money.

Low-performing Minn. schools get extra money, with strings attached

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
July 29, 2010


St. Paul, Minn. — State education officials have informed 19 Minnesota schools that they will share more than $24 million to improve school achievement.

The schools were part of a group identified earlier this year as the lowest-performing schools in the state.

The money doled out Thursday is part of an unprecedented federal effort aimed at turning around the schools ranked in the lowest 5 percent, based on test scores and other factors. The federal strategy is to focus a lot of money on a relatively small number of schools.

Isle High School in central Minnesota, for example, will receive $1 million --- about one-sixth of its entire budget. The largest grant is $1.9 million for Edison Senior High in Minneapolis.

In return for the money, schools had to agree to make several changes by the time students return to school this fall.

"The expectation is these schools will implement quickly and dramatically to make change in order to meet these lofty goals, in order to turn around student achievement," said Pat King, director of The Minnesota Department of Education's new Office of Turnaround Schools.

Students will notice some of the changes on day one. Schools had to add instruction time, so some students will either have a longer school day this year or more summer school next summer. In most schools, students will also notice a new principal. Departing ones were replaced with new leaders who will take part in the state's principals academy.

Some of the changes won't be as noticeable. School leaders had to develop new data systems, along with plans to increase collaboration among teachers.

The schools also had to hire a new full-time employee to both help implement the turnaround, but also to take on some of the duties the principal might have had in the past --- among them disciplinary and transportation matters.

The theory is the new person will free up the principal to work more with teachers on what's being taught in each classroom.

The entire effort was initially met with shock in many communities who were being labeled among the state's worst-performing schools.

That shock is wearing off, and people are now trying to make the effort work, said Eric Molho, director of strategic planning for the Minneapolis school district. Molho is overseeing the turnaround of the six Minneapolis schools that together will receive more than $8 million.

Molho said the challenge is to convince the public that this isn't just the next initiative that will end up doing very little.

"There's some confusion sometimes that this is throwing good money after bad," he said. "From our perspective, this is money that is going to really jump-start the changes these schools need to make."

Not everyone is convinced. One frequent criticism is that schools were forced to fire principals who weren't the problem. Another is that the effort doesn't fit well with every school's individual situation, and the burden of complying wasn't worth all that money.

Four of the state's lowest performing schools didn't even apply. One of them is Four Directions Charter School in northeast Minneapolis, which serves American Indian students.

Director Ron Buckanaga said he would have had to hire three new people to implement the turnaround -- a huge bump over his current staff of 15. He said he has no regrets that he passed on as much as $1 million for his school of about 100 students.

"They're going to make you do a lot of wholesale changes. I agree with some of it, but personally I don't see how hiring three administrators is going to turn our school around," Buckanaga said.

If Buckanaga changes his mind and decides he does want to apply for the money, he'll have a chance next year. The four schools that didn't apply can apply next year for a second round of money.

There were also seven charter schools that did apply for money but did not receive any, because the state determined they weren't capable of making all the required changes by this fall. They, too, can reapply next year.