For the past three years, three Tacoma middle schools were part of a national experiment aimed at helping struggling schools right themselves.
Giaudrone, Jason Lee and Stewart middle schools received a total of $11 million — the largest sum given to any Washington school district under the federal School Improvement Grant program.
Now the SIG funds are all but gone, and Tacoma Public Schools is left to assess if the funds helped lift up three schools whose test scores were ranked in the bottom 5 percent statewide.
The results are mixed. Test scores improved this year at Jason Lee and Giaudrone, and both schools attracted more students.
At Stewart, the picture is worse. Test scores remained low two years into the grant, and Stewart went through so many early struggles that current school leadership and district officials acknowledged in a 2012 federal report that “the school has lost two full years of SIG implementation.”
The reform experiment was designed to answer whether rapid and deep changes in low-performing schools could yield sustainable results after the grant money expired.
Tacoma schools might help settle that question.
“The SIG money is no longer there,” said Ben Gauyan, who became the district’s new middle school director this summer. “We have to find different ways.”
The 2011-12 state accountability index, which factors in year-to-year test score trends, rated both Jason Lee and Giaudrone overall as “good,” the midrange of five scoring levels. In math, scores improved at mostly double-digit levels for all three grades compared to two years earlier, before SIG went into effect.
Meanwhile, Stewart remained stuck in the bottom “struggling” level. In math, scores dropped among both seventh and eighth graders over the two-year period. For the 2011-12 school year, less than 12 percent of Stewart eighth graders passed the math test.
The full verdict on the program’s effectiveness is still out.
This summer, test scores from the final year of SIG will show whether Giaudrone and Jason Lee sustained their gains and whether Stewart made strides. The state’s final assessment on how well SIG schools performed will be completed sometime after that.
THE START OF CHANGE
SIG was born from the economic stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009. The federal government provided a nearly $4 billion boost for struggling schools across the nation, including 28 schools in this state.
State education officials identified four Tacoma middle schools among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Washington, making them eligible for the federal dollars. The SIG designation was based on reading and math scores on state tests over a three-year period.
The money was enticing, but the stakes were high and the strings attached were tangled in Gordian knots. Schools that received the money were required to implement one of four improvement models designated by the U.S. Department of Education. Some Pierce County school districts, including Franklin Pierce and Bethel, opted out.
In February 2010, Tacoma Superintendent Art Jarvis announced he wanted his district to opt into SIG. Noting the designated schools drew students from some of the city’s high-poverty pockets, Jarvis said he wanted to see “disruptive changes” he hoped would transform the schools for the better.
Those changes began in fall 2010:
• Hunt Middle School was closed under the most radical federal model.
• Giaudrone and Stewart middle schools received new principals and new faculty under a model that required at least half the staff be replaced.
• Jason Lee changed the least under a less disruptive plan. Principal Jonathan Kellett, who arrived a year before SIG, was allowed to stay. The federal money bought the school added staff, counseling hours and broader elective offerings.
Nearly $3 million went to Jason Lee with Giaudrone and Stewart receiving nearly $4 million apiece.
Though the approaches varied at each school, they all promised more support for struggling students, an increase in math and literacy instruction, and longer school days.
In 2011, a fifth Tacoma middle school, Baker, qualified to apply for SIG money based on its low state test scores. But Tacoma officials decided not to ask for more SIG money, in part because they said the process had proven to be cumbersome.
Instead, the staff at Baker launched its own improvement initiative, agreeing to pursue various levels of national certification. It’s too soon to gauge its effect on test scores since the initiative began in the 2011-12 school year.
Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno, who oversaw SIG efforts as deputy superintendent before replacing Jarvis in the top job in 2012, said the district has learned important lessons these past three years that can translate to all its schools, struggling or not.
“It’s going to make us smarter” when the district enacts reforms, she said.
One example is a national program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, which teaches students study skills they will need as they prepare for college.
AVID is now used in many Tacoma schools.
Investments in professional development and training for teachers at the SIG schools — more than $1 million in the first two years — have paid off, Santorno said. She said that training will stick with them for years to come.
Jason Lee mom Morgan Zantua believes parents need to keep the pressure on elected leaders to fully fund the kinds of improvements that have breathed new life into old schools.
“We have to start owning up to saying, ‘We want this,’” Zantua said.
The Legislature recently adopted a budget investing roughly $1 billion more into K-12 education over the next two years — the first payment intended to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling known as McCleary.
In part because of the SIG experiment, Santorno said that when the increased state funding arrives, “we will know where to put our bang for the buck.”
In addition, Tacoma voters this year approved a $500 million bond measure that will improve or rebuild schools across the city, including Stewart.
“They’ve got the infrastructure,” Zantua said. “Now we need the heart and soul in our schools.”