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Criticized federal grant program helped turn around Spokane’s Rogers High School

UPDATED: Fri., April 7, 2017

FILE – Rogers High School in 2009. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Rogers High School in 2009. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

In 2011, the graduation rate at Rogers High School hovered around 50 percent. And students’ reading, writing and math scores were 10 to 20 percentage points lower than state averages.

Fast forward six years and the high school has made substantial improvements. The graduation rate is now 77 percent. Test scores have increased. School pride is at an all time high. In fact, the school’s success was featured in the New York Times in March.

The catalyst for much of that turnaround came from a three-year, $4 million federal grant targeting poorly performing schools.

In March, a University of Washington study looked at the School Improvement Grant program, which Rogers received in 2011, and found that the program is effective given time and staff and buy-in of the principal.

The study contradicts a January study by the Department of Education that also looked at the three-year federal School Improvement Grants, a legacy of the Obama era. The Department of Education study concluded that the $7 billion sent to thousands of schools nationwide had little impact on test scores.

However, educators and administrators in Spokane say the SIG played an important role in improving one of the district’s worst-performing and poorest schools.

Lorna Spear, director of the district’s Early Learning and Intervention program, said the grant helped spur change.

“What the SIG grant did for them most of all was give them some resources and allowed them to rally around the school improvement work,” she said.

However, the grant money wasn’t the only factor driving the school’s improvement, Spear said. Around the same time the school received the grant, it also got a new principal and a remodeled building. Those things all coincided to create the “perfect storm” of success, Spear said.

“It doesn’t seem like much, but it doesn’t take that much when kids are struggling,” Spear said.

Deana Brower, Spokane Public Schools board president, agreed with Spear.

“It’s (Rogers’ success) a combination of the grant, the leadership and the data they were using.”

The decision to apply for the SIG came from teachers and administrators at Rogers, said Spokane Education Association President Jenny Rose.

“The cool thing about the SIG grant was that it was totally driven by staff,” Rose said.

Staff level involvement is a key factor in whether SIG grants are successful, according to Min Sun, the lead author of the University of Washington study. Sun looked at nine different schools in San Francisco. The grant worked best when teachers and principals wanted the funding and were involved in the decision making, she said.

Schools receiving SIG money had improved teacher retention and teachers reported feeling more supported. Additionally, families preferred to send their children to schools that received SIG funds, Sun said.

These positive impacts took time to manifest, Sun said.

“We didn’t see significant positive effects in the first two years,” Sun said. “However, we do see significant positive change … by the third year of the grant.”

She added, “(It) really needs time to take place to implement and then have a positive impact on students’ outcome measures.”

The Department of Education study looked at 500 schools in 22 states and focused on whether schools receiving the money used teaching practices promoted by SIG and what impact SIG money had on student performance.

According to that report there was no evidence that SIG caused schools to use SIG-approved practices and that the money had no “significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

Sun believes that the Department of Education study’s findings are due, in part, to the wide variation in how schools and districts use SIG money. She believes looking at specific schools and districts can show what does and doesn’t work about the grant program.

“Maybe we can learn some lessons about the potential of the SIG-related strategies by zooming into this one special case,” she said.

Unlike the Department of Education study, Sun didn’t look exclusively at student achievement. Instead she tried to account for other aspects of the educational experience – such as teacher and parent satisfaction.

“Let’s look at the impacts that go above and beyond the test scores,” she said.

Understanding how and why certain schools receiving SIG dollars succeeded and others didn’t will only become more important. Under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have more control over how they hold poorly performing schools accountable. Understanding what works – and what doesn’t – will be key to the successful implementation of ESSA.

In Spokane that grant money started a profound transformation at Rogers. Six years later the change continues.

“It just takes a little bit of success to breed more success,” Spear said.

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