Failing Illinois high schools improve with federal cash: study

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Illinois high schools that are part of the multi- billion federal School Improvement Grant program showed improvement in student attendance, truancy and mobility but have yet to make major inroads in improving academics, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report, by Advance Illinois and the consulting group Mass Insight Education, analyzed outcomes for schools that received money in the first round of the SIG program, the 2010-11 school year. So far, Illinois has received $168 million from the initiative, which targets the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools in the country.

Initially, 10 Illinois high schools received grants, although 95 are eligible. But three in south suburban Thornton Township 205 in Harvey had their grants suspended because of problems with community support and legal issues, according to the report. Among the 10 were four Chicago schools: Harper, Marshall and Fenger, managed by the district’s Office of School Improvement; and Phillips, managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership.

The report found that by the end of the first year of the program:

School climate improved. Attendance rose from 80 percent to 86 percent. Truancy declined from 30 percent to 9 percent. Mobility declined slightly from 28 percent to 27 percent.

Academics showed mixed progress: More students earned a 20 or higher on the ACT, the minimum required score for many colleges and university. Compared to similar schools, a higher percentage of students made expected gains between the 9th-grade PLAN and the subsequent ACT. The one-year dropout rate declined, from 19.5 percent to 16.7 percent. In Chicago, the percentage of freshmen on–track to graduate rose at Fenger and Marshall, but declined at Harper and Phillips.

“This report confirms the academic improvement we have seen through turnaround efforts in some of our chronically failing high schools, and the need for continued investments in these initiatives to drive academic achievement in our lowest performing schools to better prepare students for success in college and career,” says Becky Carroll, chief communications officer for CPS.

Despite the billions flowing to schools nationwide—1,200 so far—the SIG program has mostly flown under the radar. But earlier this week, a national reporting project on the SIG initiative debuted. Spearheaded by the Education Writers Association, The Hechinger Report at Teachers College-Columbia University, and Education Week, the project concluded that it’s too soon to draw a conclusive verdict on the $4 billion program. Catalyst Chicago participated in the project with a look at how schools here are faring.

Meanwhile, a recent federal report found that a quarter of 700 schools showed some progress in math, and about 20 percent in reading.

Promise, but what’s next?

The results in the Advance Illinois/Mass Insight report show promise and are a reminder of the difficult task of improving failing schools. Education experts say it typically takes several years for struggling schools to make significant academic progress. Other indicators, such as attendance and truancy, can show improvement quickly and are considered a necessary precursor to better learning.

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, says it’s “encouraging that early results are as promising as they are.” But, as the report also notes, policymakers and educators must pay attention to the strategies that are making inroads in these long-term, chronically failing schools.

“We want to draw attention to it,” Steans says of the SIG initiative. “If you get a bump and then go back to normal, then we’ve learned nothing and didn’t change our thinking [about school improvement] at all.”

In Chicago, the report outlines the practices that schools have adopted. Teams of psychologists, social workers and counselors come up with interventions for struggling students. School leaders comb through weekly reports on data such as grades and attendance to identify students who are in danger of falling through the cracks and failing. Job candidates go through a group interview and then walk the halls of schools. Prospective principals identify what they would fix, and how. Prospective teachers teach a lesson. 

But still to be answered, though, is the critical question: What next? Even if these schools continue to improve, what happens when the money goes away?

Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, says the state is “working closely with these schools, with the intention that they are able to sustain these improvements. That’s the goal.” Since schools have to reapply for the grants in years 2 and 3, ISBE is pushing them to come up with a sustainability plan as part of their new application.

Fergus, noting that a 2011 study by ISBE found that the schools made significant progress on the Prairie State exam between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, says the grants are just one segment of a bigger reform picture in Illinois that includes new teacher evaluations and a new student data system. As part of its No Child Left Behind waiver request, the state plans to open a School Improvement Center that would serve as a clearinghouse for best practices and coordinating reform efforts.

“We’re aware that this money is going to run out,” Fergus says.