As summer break winds down, East St. Louis School District 189 is gearing up to begin spending $10.5 million in federal money to kick start academic performance at its two middle schools.
In the coming days the district will begin the hiring process for 20 new positions to focus on everything from professional development to community engagement. The grant will also pay for an extended school schedule.
The money comes from a federal school improvement grant (SIG). SIGs function more like shock treatment than long-term federal support; they last three years. The district's Transformation Officer, Fred Clarke, said it’s a snug timeline for districts like East St. Louis that are struggling to reverse years of low academic performance amid dwindling state funding.
Clarke said administrators would lean on previous experience to make the most of the extra money and resources.
“We learned that it’s all about the implementation,” said Clarke, who was hired to manage the district’s turnaround effort.
Congress authorized SIG grants as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and they were aimed at improving classroom success in the nation’s lowest performing schools.
In September 2012, the district was awarded $6 million in SIG money for a turnaround project at East St. Louis High School. By that time, school was already underway and administrators had to hustle to put their plan in place.
For instance, it took until October to hire a specialist for helping students struggling with reading.
“It was midway through the year and we were trying to implement so many things because we wanted to see a fast turnaround,” Clarke said. “But when you inundate staff with so many new things it becomes overwhelming.”
With procedural hurdles cleared and some experience under its belt, Clarke said the district is in a better position this time around to ensure staff are in place and strategies are being monitored.
“All the research tells everybody, all over the nation, that it takes five to seven years to turn around a school,” Clarke said. “We have to make some quick improvements within the next three years.”
Laying the groundwork
Data for the 2013-14 school year won’t be released by the state until this fall. But 2012-13 numbers show some limited improvement at East St. Louis High School. The four-year graduation rate, for instance, increased to 67 percent during the 2012-13 school year from 63 percent in 2011-12 school year. That number, however, is 16 percentage points below the state average of 83 percent.
State test scores showed slight improvements, too. When compared to the year before the SIG grant, the percentage of high school students who met or exceeded state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) in reading increased to 14 percent from 10 percent. In math the number rose only to 6 percent from 5 percent.
Clarke acknowledged that the uptick the first year of the grant was marginal but said by improving school culture they’ve laid the groundwork for greater gains.
“It wasn’t conducive to a learning environment,” Clarke said. “As we moved toward more of a learning environment, cleaning up a lot of the issues with kids out in the hall, enforcing the uniform policy, we did see some slight increases.”
Data for the 2013-14 school year will be released this fall and Clarke said he expected to see improvement in ACT scores, a college entrance exam. In 2013, only 3 percent of students at the school earned 21 or more points out of a possible 36 points on the ACT, making them classified under state standards as "ready for college coursework."
To help manage the SIG grant for Lincoln and Mason Clark Middle Schools, East St. Louis is pairing up with the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS). Districts in Illinois are required by the Illinois State Board of Education to work with “lead partners” in order to receive SIG grant funds.
Matt Snyder, regional superintendent of schools for Macon and Piatt Counties, will co-chair the IARSS team for East St. Louis. He said the network of administrators will continue to advise East St. Louis after the grant expires.
“We try to draw from the statewide network,” Snyder said. “Those who have the expertise in urban schools are those who will focus on this.”
Snyder said the challenges in a district with like East St. Louis with deep and systemic poverty are numerous and complicated.
For example, the percentage of students considered chronically truant by the state – defined as missing almost two weeks of class time without a valid excuse –ballooned at both middle schools between 2009 and 2013. Students can’t learn if they’re not in school, and Snyder said one of the first steps is making sure they get to class on a regular basis.
“It’s really making some personal contact with those kids,” Snyder said. “Saying, ‘hey, we need you in school. We know you’ve been missing, we miss you.’”
Chronic truancy differs from chronic absenteeism, which researchers define as missing three and a half weeks of school for any reason. Both truancy and chronic absenteeism often plague low-income districts and can lead to a string of academic challenges, as documented by St. Louis Public Radio’s series “Accounted For.”
Rates of truancy and absenteeism often begin to increase during the middle school years, and Snyder said the district can reap benefits down the road by setting students on a steady course toward academic achievement.
“It’s a chance to really reconnect them and let them see what their potential is,” Snyder said. “And to let them see that education is really an important part of their life.”
In 2012, the state school board voted to take over the district, prompting members of the local school board to file suit challenging the action. The lawsuit ended in May 2013 with a consent decree issued in St. Clair County Circuit Court. he consent decree allows local school board members to have input on curriculum, hiring, budgetary and other matters. Final decisions, however, are up to district superintendent Arthur Culver.