Rejecting federal grants right move for districts

While some Mid-Columbia school districts struggle with obvious challenges, they are forging ahead to make improvements without relying on tricky federal grant money.

Though Pasco and Ken-newick schools had the dubious distinction of qualifyingfor federal School Improvement Grants, officials in both districts have opted not to apply.

Strings attached to the federal aid can cause more disruption than it's worth. Opting out is a reasonable alternative.

Both districts landed on a list of schools that aren't meeting federal standards for graduation rates and/or standardized test scores. The list was published this month by the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Making the list made the schools eligible for the grant money.

Both districts have different reasons for rejecting the money, but each is working on improving deficiencies without federal help.

We can understand why the schools have refused the money. The strings attached to the grants are harsh.

If you accept the money, you must chose from a limited range of drastic changes, including firing the troubled school's principal or closing the school and redistributing the students throughout the district.

It's ridiculous to think that a handful of alternatives dictated in Washington, D.C., can help fix every struggling school in the nation.

The system should have enough flexibility to allow school districts to make the changes that address the unique needs of the communities they serve.

Pasco's superintendent says the demographics of her district make it difficult for young students to score well on standardized tests.

The high percentage of students living in poverty in Pasco affects test scores, said Superintendent Saundra Hill. And the government's reliance on standardized tests makes no allowance for the fact many Pasco students are learning English as their second language.

At the seven Pasco schools that made the list, 50 percentto 70 percent of the studentsare learning English.

Pasco has the highest percentage of students learning English of any school district in the Northwest, Hill said.

She has pleaded her case to state and federal officials with no luck. And she points out that the district is successful once the students have mastered English.

Older students who havehad time to master Englishare scoring higher on tests. The proof is in the fact that neither of Pasco's high schools made the list of poor performers.

While Pasco won't ask for the money that comes with being on the low-performing schools list, Hill and her teachers are taking seriously the news of making that infamous list.

The teachers are coming up with proposals that could include longer school days or years for students who need more time in the classroom. Hill says once the teachers have a plan, she will find the money to make it work.

The district also is finding ways to help parents who don't speak English as their primary language to navigate the district and be involved in their children's education.

More than 600 families recently gave up their Saturday to attend a seminarsponsored by Pasco's bi-lingual Parent AdvisoryCommittee.

Kennewick High Schoolalso made the list for having a low graduation rate. Officials there say one bad year skewed the statistics and improvements already have beenmade. Kennewick has added "success coordinators" tooversee kids who need a little more help getting their diplomas.

We're encouraged to see both districts taking matters into their own hands to make improvements, and we endorse the decision to forego federal money that comes with drastic consequences.