School Improvement Grants: ‘Restart Model’
This is the second in a series looking at schools across the nation that are implementing one of the four models required under the School Improvement Grant program. In the February 2011newsletter, we began with a look at the “turnaround model.”

Seeking to “rebrand” its alternative high school and boost long-struggling student performance, a rural North Carolina school district used its share of federal school improvement funding to roll the dice and literally start from scratch.

The goal was to transition the newly coined Anson Academy, an alternative program serving 100 sixth- to 12th-graders, from a school serving a custodial purpose to one with flexible options that would keep students engaged. The district shrank class sizes, created customized career-learning plans for students and offered flexible scheduling so students could attend school while also meeting other responsibilities such as work and childcare.

Not that there weren’t “hiccups,” conceded Anson County Superintendent Greg Firn, but after three-quarters of a school year, he has seen some “very, very positive first steps.”

A Look Back at a Struggling School
Opened in 1998, the former Anson Challenge Academy — renamed the Anson Academy as part of the district’s attempt to shed the negative stigma attached to the school prior to the restart — enrolled students who, for various reasons such as discipline and attendance problems, had struggled in the traditional learning environment.

In 2009-10, the school was predominantly black,with a poverty rate of nearly 90 percent. For that same school year, the academy missed “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) in all but three of its 17 target goals. Overall, only 11.9 percent of students attending the school demonstrated proficiency in all subject areas during the 2008-09 school year. Further, the academy had a dropout rate of 21 percent, with only 43 percent of students graduating — more than 20 percentage points below the district’s average.

Based on Anson Challenge Academy’s dismal achievement outcomes, North Carolina, in its School Improvement Grant (SIG) application, identified the institution as a “Tier 1” school, the highest priority under the program.

Under SIG (No Child Left Behind Section 1003(g)), states subgrant their share of funding to districts that target their lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools for reform, based on one of the four models prescribed in the final rules: turnaround, transformation, restart, or close/consolidate. The $3.5 billion total for the 2009-10 cycle (with implementation beginning this school year)includes more than $500 million in regular fiscal 2009 appropriations and $3 billion in stimulus funding (for program specifics, see the January 2010 newsletter).

States receiving SIG money subgrant their funds to schools in three “tiers,” according to the following priorities: Tier I, the lowest-achieving 5 percent of Title I schools in improvement, or the five lowest-performing Title I schools, whichever is greater; Tier II, equally low performing secondary schools that are eligible for, but do not receive, Title I funds; and Tier III, or the remaining Title I schools in improvement that are not in Tier I.

Under the model chosen for Anson Academy, a district “restarts” the school by closing it and then reopening it as a charter school or a school run by an education management organization (EMO). Districts choosing this option must enroll, within the grades the school serves, any former student who wants to do so.

Just over 4 percent of the 730 schools nationally that are receiving SIG funds opted to restart, with the vast majority of those schools in urban settings; the Anson Academy is one of only five predominantly rural schools that are restarting.

Of the 25 schools North Carolina initially identified for participation, the majority, like Anson Academy, are middle or high schools serving at-risk students in alternative environments. Of the 19 districts receiving SIG funding, Anson County is the lone system implementing a restart model with its three-year, $2.44 million grant.

According to North Carolina Superintendent June Atkinson, 14 of the schools selected were alternative schools that have struggled to serve some of the state’s “most vulnerable students.”

“We are excited to see how this kind of intervention can make a difference in schools where a large percentage of the students are economically disadvantaged, or where many of the students have disabilities, or are at an increased risk

Selecting the Best Model
Even prior to applying for SIG funding, the Anson school board pushed for a rebranding of the image-plagued school.

Firn organized a team of central office staff and other stakeholders to take a look at the Academy’s challenges and possible solutions, including the possibility of using an EMO. Several months later, when SIG funds became available, that Alternative School Assistance Team transitioned into the SIG Planning Team and pinpointed the restart model as the option with the most promise.

“We didn’t need to have a band-aid bolted to the side of the school,” said Firn, adding that a consensus formed around the idea that a third-party overhaul was the best option for the struggling school.

We didn’t need to have a band-aid bolted to the side of the school. —Greg Firn, superintendent, Anson County (N.C.) School District

George Hancock, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s School Improvement Grants coordinator, agreed that a restart enables embattled schools such as the Anson Academy “to rapidly shift the prevailing school culture in an alternative setting and provide immediate structures that would support students and staff.”

Anson County officials did their due diligence in identifying the EMO that would best fit their needs. The team looked at numerous management groups across the country, and, according to the grant application, weighed their experience, accreditation status, facility requirements, grades served, types of students served and how their programs compared to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. After evaluating the options, Firn said the team whittled the list down to three “serious” contenders. Ultimately, however, Anson County selected Nashville, Tenn.-based Ombudsman Educational Services, a division of Educational Services of America.

Following a site visit to an Ombudsman-run school in Douglasville, Ga., Firn and other district officials were “really impressed” with the company’s 35-year track record and capacity to issue their own diplomas. In the end, Firn considered Ombudsman a perfect fit.

Not then having a presence in North Carolina, Ombudsman also was interested in the opportunity. Created to help curb the dropout rate through alternative programming, Ombudsman currently works in partnership with 120 districts in 18 states. Ombudsman’s programs are accredited by AdvanceEd, the unified organization of the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement.

Ombudsman’s customized programming, which is aligned with state standards and provides emotional and behavioral supports for students, has resulted in 81 percent of seniors graduating, according to Allison O’Neill, Ombudsman’s chief operating officer.

“We work closely with district administrators and staff to create a customized alternative education program that best meets students’ needs,” she said.

Changes to Anson Academy
As the term “restart” implies, Anson Academy completely overhauled its staff and programming, pushing once-struggling students to excel in an educational environment more tailored to their individual needs. More than just changing the school’s name and making other minor changes, Firn said the goal was getting students to buy in to the program.

One of the main reforms instituted by Ombudsman and the district was drastically shrinking class sizes from large groups to smaller learning situations with a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:10, according to Anson County’s SIG application. Students previously enrolled in the former Anson Challenge Academy were given preference for enrollment, with the remaining slots filled by students referred by their middle or high schools. Once enrolled, students may remain at Anson Academy until graduation or may transfer to their home school by satisfying specific requirements.

To accommodate the varying schedules of Anson Academy’s students, many of whom work or are their family’s primary caregiver, the district split the school day into three sessions of 33 students each. Each student attends one of the daily six-and-a-half-hour sessions — morning, afternoon and evening — which consists of four hours of academic work and two-and-a-half hours of college/career exploration or work-based learning.

Of course, providing door-to-door transportation for all three sessions posed a significant challenge, but it was one that Firn said the district made a “conscious decision” to achieve. In the end, Anson County altered its busing schedule and made some accommodations by busing students who lived in the county’s outer regions home via satellite buses from elementary schools operating on a similar schedule. There were some mid-course corrections, but, all in all, Firn said things had progressed well.

Each student also operates under an individual learning plan based on his or her needs as determined by the entry assessment. The plans contain attainable goals with the curriculum adapted to meet the student’s learning pace. The individual learning plan ultimately feeds into a cumulative post-secondary transition portfolio, which is a living document that involves students’ aspirations beyond high school — whether post-secondary education or employment in a specific field. The district employs two career coaches paid, in part, with Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act dollars to help prepare students for their post-high school lives.

Students may work to obtain either a North Carolina-sanctioned diploma for satisfying the state’s graduation standards or, because of Ombudsman’s accreditation status, a diploma from the organization.

As could be expected, teachers had concern about the restart. Firn admitted that reassigning teachers resulted in some “initial tension,” with a couple of teachers electing to retire and a few others struggling in their new positions. However, the district made a concerted effort to inform the community that no teachers from the former Anson Challenge Academy were losing their jobs. Any teacher could apply to the EMO, which had a right of first refusal. Any teachers electing not to apply to the EMO were guaranteed a position elsewhere in the school district.

State Monitoring

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has taken a very active role in assisting the state’s SIG recipients. All schools now have been visited at least twice, with monitoring consisting of a status report review with the principal, a review of documentation, and interviews with teachers, the principal, the school improvement chairperson and the SIG coordinator.

Firn highlighted the benefits of the state’s monitoring process, praising monitors for providing technical assistance rather than simply pointing out areas of noncompliance.

According to the state department, the monitoring itself focuses on the school’s fidelity in implementing its chosen SIG model, progress toward outcome measures identified in the grant application, a look at the budget compared to expenditures and the leading indicators identified by the U.S. Department of Education in its final requirements.

There is an extremely positive tension in place, as schools realize the challenge in front of them while also confronting the sense of urgency that SIG has created. —George Hancock, N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction

Hancock, the state department’s SIG coordinator, commended districts across the state for their work implementing SIG programs in such a relatively short timeframe. Overall, he said early monitoring reports reflect a positive response from local staff in terms of commitment, with school staff members working not only to improve student achievement, but to provide model programs that may be duplicated in other struggling schools.

“There is an extremely positive tension in place, as schools realize the challenge in front of them while also confronting the sense of urgency that SIG has created,” Hancock said.

For Further Information
A copy of the Anson Academy’s SIG application is available online here.
Visit Thompson’s NCLB Advisor Online.