Mid-Columbia school officials wary about federal grants

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMarch 1, 2014 

Several Mid-Columbia schools are eligible for up to $2 million each through a federal grant program but several area education officials said the conditions to receive the money aren't worth the trouble.

Washington will receive $24 million over the next three years as part of the federal government's School Improvement Grant program. Schools designated as low-income and underperforming in the Pasco, Kennewick and Kiona-Benton City school districts could apply for some of those dollars to improve student performance.

Accepting the money means complying with certain conditions to turn the schools around, from replacing the principal and most of the staff to converting to a charter school model.

Those strategies often don't align with the work already underway in the schools, officials said.

"Rather than look at who Amistad (Elementary School) serves, you look at a score and you say it's failing," said Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond.

Guidelines require schools that apply for the grants be listed as Priority Schools by the state. Those schools are in the lowest 5 percent in state test results receiving federal dollars to help with the additional needs of low-income students.

Pasco has five elementary schools with that designation while Kennewick has two elementary schools and Ki-Be its elementary school. All of them were listed by the state as having failing math and reading scores. All also have a minimum of three out of four students receiving free or reduced price meals and all but one school have significant numbers of English language learners.

If a district applies for a grant and a school receives one, it must do one of the following: either replace the principal and at least half of the school's staff; convert the school to a charter model; close the school and move the students to other schools; or replace the principal and institute comprehensive reforms.

Pasco school officials have sought the grants in the past and are considering applying this year as well, spokeswoman Leslee Caul said. But Ki-Be Interim Superintendent Wade Haun said his district isn't interested in the program.

"We have an improvement plan in place and we are currently working within that framework to improve our test scores," he told the Herald in an email.

A grant would be useful, Bond said, but complying with the conditions would be burdensome and wasteful. Kennewick has spent significant time and money to train teachers at the targeted schools, many of whom would have to be replaced.

But the greater problem is the federal government's expectations for student performance, Bond said. Many students at the district's underperforming schools are immigrants who have arrived with little or no English skills taking state standardized tests only in English.

Students at some of the designated schools are performing by other measures. Three of Pasco's Priority Schools have seen improvements in math and reading over three years based on the Supera test, which is given in Spanish.

But federal officials expect those students to be proficient in English within two years of showing up in a classroom, something that would be difficult for anyone learning a new language, Bond said.

"It's the federal mindset," he said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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