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School improvement grants fail to yield results

Jeremy Lazarus | 10/4/2018, 6 a.m.
Ask Mayor Levar M. Stoney what it will take to fix Richmond’s ailing public schools, and he has a succinct ...

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Mayor Levar Stoney

Ask Mayor Levar M. Stoney what it will take to fix Richmond’s ailing public schools, and he has a succinct answer: More money from the state.

He’s now leading a campaign to boost state educational spending in Richmond and across Virginia.

“Since 2009, Virginia has decreased funding for K-12 education by an estimated $378 million per year,” he said, “and that needs to change.”

More money is also the favored solution of Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras, as well virtually all members of the Richmond School Board.

Mr. Kamras has complained that funding shortages are stymieing his efforts to carry out an aggressive academic improvement plan for city schools. And every spring, members of the School Board troop to City Council to complain about the failure to provide adequate funding.

But is more money the answer?

Not if the federally funded School Improvement Grant program offers any guidance.

Since 2010, the Virginia Department of Education annually has used the SIG program to pour millions of dollars into 15 Richmond schools. But $41 million later, there is virtually no evidence that the extra spending has turned around the schools that range from Armstrong High to Woodville Elementary.

In the past eight years, according to RPS records, the money has paid for new computers and instructional equipment and for educational consultants who are touted as experts in revving up academic achievement.

Of the 15 schools that have received SIG dollars since the 2010-11 school year, only one school has seen significant improvement in the percentage of students passing state Standards of Learning tests. Yet that appears to have more to do with the people who were put in charge than the extra money.

In some of the city schools with SIG money, the percentage of students passing state SOL tests has fallen, hardly an optimistic outcome.

For example, Binford Middle School, whose curriculum was overhauled, has been awarded more than $2 million in SIG grants in the past five years, including $288,000 in the 2017-18 school year.

But in 2018, only 44 percent of students passed the SOL tests for writing, down from 50 percent in 2017. The percentage of students passing SOL tests in math also dropped to 45 percent in 2018, down 8 percent from 2016.

Since the 2012-2013 school year, John Marshall High School has been awarded more than $3 million in SIG grants. Even though 72 percent passed English SOL tests, just 54 percent of students who took the SOL test in writing passed in 2018, down from 65 percent in 2017. In science, less than half the students passed the SOL test in 2018, which was below the pass rates of the previous two years.

The Richmond Alternative School, which serves students with serious behavior problems and which has been awarded more than $2.5 million in SIG grants since the 2012-2013 school year, is the only one of the 15 where pass rates have increased dramatically.

In 2018, 77 percent of students at the school passed the state SOL test in reading, a jump from 22 percent in 2016. In math, 52 percent of students passed the SOL test, a big jump from 2016 when only 8 percent passed.

However, the change was ushered in after RPS stopped using its own staff and hired Texas-based Camelot Education to operate the alternative school. While the 2018 results were far better than those in 2016, the improvements may have stalled. The percentage of RAS students passing the tests in 2018 lagged the 2017 results.

Other schools that have received SIG grants for multiple years include Blackwell Elementary, Boushall Middle, Chimborazo Elementary, Elkhardt-Thompson Middle, G.H. Reid Elementary, Ginter Park Elementary, Henderson Middle, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle, Oak Grove-Bellmeade Elementary and Swansboro Elementary.

Fourteen of the SIG grant schools were accredited with conditions, according to the VDOE data. The 15th school, G.H. Reid Elementary, was listed as fully accredited, even though the percentage of students passing state SOL tests in 2018 was below the percentages reported in 2016 and 2017.