Tuesday, August 24, 2010


By SAM DILLON | New York Times

August 23, 2010 -- SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Secretary of Education Arne Duncan set an ambitious goal last year of overhauling 1,000 schools a year, using billions of dollars in federal stimulus money.

But that effort is off to an uneven start. Schools from Maine to California are starting the fall term with their overhaul plans postponed or in doubt because negotiations among federal regulators, state officials and local educators have led to delays and confusion.

In this sprawling district east of Los Angeles, for example, the authorities announced plans earlier this year to use the program to convert Pacific High, one of California’s worst-performing schools, to a charter school, involving a comprehensive makeover.

But with time running short this summer, the San Bernardino district switched course, adopting only smaller changes — a crackdown on tardiness and extending the school day, among others — that officials said would be more manageable.

When students returned for classes on Aug. 3, even the plan for a longer school day was delayed because California had still not distributed the $5.2 million in federal money the district hopes to spend on the school.

“This program is about making ambitious changes,” said Arturo Delgado, the San Bernardino superintendent. “But the timelines were so quick, and we had to make adjustments on the fly.”

The initiative is a key part of the Obama administration’s overall education strategy, but has been overshadowed by Race to the Top, a parallel competition that will culminate Tuesday when Mr. Duncan announces the dozen or so states that will share in $3.4 billion in grants.

The turnaround effort is being financed with $3.5 billion this year.

Federal officials say the turnaround initiative is on track, as low-performing schools in many states have reorganized teaching staffs and instructional programs.

From the outset, states have had the option of delaying disbursement of federal money to schools if more planning was needed, said Peter Cunningham, a Department of Education spokesman.

“A lot of schools are well ahead of the game,” Mr. Cunningham said, “and those that aren’t can roll the money over until next year.”

Still, experts have been warning for months that the administration’s timetable was too tight, forcing schools and districts to create last-minute plans.

“To do this right, schools needed to know probably nine months ago that they’d be funded, but many are only finding out now,” said Robert Manwaring, an expert on school turnaround efforts at Education Sector, a nonprofit research center in Washington.

In March, Mr. Manwaring wrote in his blog that the Education Department was pursuing a “crazy timeline” and should postpone the initiative to allow better planning.

But the program is financed with stimulus money that by law must be awarded this fall, so federal officials have rushed to inaugurate it this year.

The lag in disbursing the money will affect students in different ways. For some, it will mean less-qualified instructors in the classroom, because many schools getting money were not ready to hire new teachers in the spring, when the best candidates were available.

And in several states, students were unable to participate in summer activities that were supposed to be part of their school’s turnaround strategy, but were canceled because financing did not arrive in time.

Some eligible districts concluded that the schedule was too tight to allow time to develop coherent reorganization plans. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest system, applied for only 13 of its 31 eligible schools.

“It wasn’t feasible to do so many schools within this timeline,” said Sharon V. Robinson, a special assistant to the Los Angeles superintendent.

In Wyoming, 12 of 18 eligible schools turned down the money.

“We only had a couple of weeks before the deadline and would just about have had to shut down regular operations to figure out how to spend all that money,” said M. Neil Terhune, superintendent of Carbon County No. 1 District in Wyoming.

State grants range from $8.5 million for Vermont to $415 million for California. Each of a state’s lowest-achieving schools can apply for up to $6 million to be used over three years.

During the last decade, many low-performing schools found ways to get federal money without making significant changes, and Mr. Duncan insisted that rules be tightened to require new initiatives.

Some experts note that the long-term benefits of the ambitious turnaround program matter more than any short-term difficulties in carrying out changes.

“Everybody could always use more time, but this year we’re seeing a lot of energy being applied to find creative solutions,” said Bryan C. Hassel, a Harvard-trained consultant who is advising several states on their turnaround programs.

To obtain grants, states submit applications to Washington, pledging that their lowest-performing schools will carry out one of four strategies: a turnaround, including replacing the principal and at least half the staff, and using more data to develop instruction and other changes; reopening as a charter school; closing the school and transferring the students; or so-called transformation, centered on replacing the principal, training teachers and lengthening the school day.

After federal officials approve a state’s application, state officials in turn review districts’ proposals before awarding money.

Some of the longest delays have resulted from negotiations between state officials and superintendents over drafts of proposals. But it also took many months for federal officials to process all the state applications.

“We have been focused on making sure that schools and districts will have the capacity to do this well,” said Ann Whalen, a special assistant to Mr. Duncan.

By April 30, the federal department had approved about 30 state applications, including those of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

But approval of almost all the rest of the applications did not come until June, July and August.

Hawaii and Tennessee were still awaiting federal approval for their applications the third week of August. Dozens of schools in Tennessee began the fall term still hoping to begin turnaround plans in midsemester.

When Mr. Duncan made turnarounds a centerpiece of his tenure as schools chief in Chicago, he allowed schools more time to plan. Schools were approved for overhaul in February, allowing a new principal to begin hiring new teachers in March, giving a new instructional team six months to coalesce before fall classes.

The national timetable this year “has been really tight for a true turnaround,” said Robin Lake, a University of Washington researcher who studies school overhauls.

Some schools have had to cancel summer initiatives that were part of their strategy. At Livermore Falls High School in Maine, educators began carrying out some elements of the school’s overhaul plan, including hiring a new principal, well before the state’s application gained federal approval on July 12, said Susan Pratt, the local schools superintendent.

But because state officials had not approved the school’s proposal or disbursed the federal money, a summer program to help eighth grade students transition to high school had to be canceled, Ms. Pratt said.

“This was a great deal of work for our school system, and then we waited and waited,” she said.

In San Bernardino, teachers and parents who felt a burst of energy in the spring as they helped imagine Pacific High’s redesign as a charter school were dispirited and confused when the district abruptly abandoned those plans.

“That was a little rough,” said Tex Acosta, Pacific High’s principal. “Our teachers, students and community didn’t know what to make of it.”

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