Boston is using nearly $26 million in federal grants to extend the school day, boost teacher pay, and establish partnerships with nonprofit organizations, in hopes of turning around 12 persistently low-achieving public schools, according to a Globe review of spending.
The intensive support made possible by the three-year grants appears to be paying off, with rising test scores at most of the schools.
But with a little more than a year left for most schools to spend the money, officials are trying to figure out how to sustain these investments so the schools do not slide backward. It is a dilemma confronting hundreds of schools across the nation that have received funding from the Obama administration’s $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program, one of the largest efforts to overhaul the nation’s worst schools.
“This kind of seed money has been essential in jump-starting the turnaround in these schools,’’ said Frank Barnes, the Boston School Department’s chief accountability officer, who is overseeing the overhauls of the underperforming schools.
The Globe analysis looked at actual and proposed spending over the course of the three-year grants at the 12 schools. Here are some key findings:
- Approximately $7 million is covering the cost of stipends for teachers for taking on leadership roles or extra duties, and the hiring of additional teachers, tutors, and administrators, such as a “director of student success’’ at the Blackstone Elementary School.
- More than $7 million has compensated teachers and classroom aides at most of the schools for working an extra 30 to 60 minutes per day and for receiving additional training. Most of these teachers at schools such as John F. Kennedy Elementary and John Holland Elementary are earning an additional $4,100 a year, or $12,300 over the three-year span.
- More than $6 million is going to nonprofit organizations to provide services such as tutoring, counseling, and after-school programs.
Tapping nonprofits can save schools money, school officials say. City Year is sending 10 to 15 members and a program director to Orchard Gardens K-8 School, Blackstone Elementary School, and Jeremiah Burke High School, costing the schools less than $10,000 per corps member annually. City Year is providing help with student attendance and tutoring.
Sandra Lopez Burke, executive director and vice president of City Year, said what schools pay, between $120,000 and $140,000 annually, represents just a quarter of the costs to run the programs there.
“We seek to strengthen the great work that the teachers are doing . . . and help them accomplish the goals of turning these schools around,’’ Lopez Burke said.
The School Improvement Grant program is one of several Obama administration initiatives aimed at ramping up public school instruction. The Boston Teachers Union and the School Department are clashing over another federal grant program that could send $9 million to underperforming schools for teacher bonuses.
Under the School Improvement Grant program, only the worst performing schools can apply for funding. Massachusetts, which distributes the money locally, has awarded 30 grants statewide since last year, totaling $55 million, and has more than $20 million available for future requests from other schools.
“The investments [the schools] have made and the turnaround efforts they have implemented are largely bearing fruit,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “Our sense is there is real reform going on in the classrooms. There is a better commitment among staff to try new instructional approaches and a real sense of taking responsibility for these children.’’
The money, in many ways, has transformed the experiences in these schools.
Dever Elementary School in Dorchester used its $2.3 million grant to extend its day by an hour and contract with the nonprofit Generations Inc. to bring in senior citizens to tutor students, the nonprofit Playworks to run organized activities during recess, and the nonprofit City Connects to help students and their families obtain health care, housing, and other services.
“It is very important that we are able to keep the additional time at a reasonable cost or we are at risk of losing a lot of what we have accomplished,’’ said Michael Sabin, Dever’s principal.
Still, infusing chronically low-performing schools with cash and other resources has often yielded disappointing results in the long run. While schools often see achievement rise with the additional money, the results often drop off after it runs out.
Jeremiah Burke, in Dorchester, has long been the poster child for this phenomenon. In 1995 Burke school was plagued with lackluster instruction, gangs who ruled the hallways, and a deteriorating building. A massive school overhaul effort came that year after a piece of the auditorium’s ceiling fell and brushed the shoulder of Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
A few months later he returned to the Burke to announce a citywide effort to raise academic standards and promised to turn the Burke into the “pride of Boston.’’
Academic fortunes did rise at the Burke with additional money, but only temporarily. The national recession in the early 2000s ushered in an era of budget cuts. In 2010, the state declared the school underperforming.
Now, as a recipient of a school improvement grant, Burke is hoping to achieve a permanent turnaround, using its $1.7 million for a mental health worker, two instructional coaches, and contracts with City Year and other organizations.
“We are sparking great interest in students around learning by addressing their social-emotional needs,’’ said Lindsa McIntyre, Burke’s headmaster, noting that graduation and attendance rates have been rising. “The big question is what will happen after the grant ends. We can’t do this work on a bare-bones budget.’’
Principals are trying to be optimistic about finding new money. They are watching negotiations over a new teachers contract, which could expand the school day by a half hour at every school if the two sides can agree on compensation. They also intend to tap philanthropists and other government grants.
But they concede it is unlikely that all money can be replaced, and they will face tough choices.
“It’s really important that we get ahead of it so that at the end of year three, when the [federal] money is gone, we are not thinking about what the plan is,’’ said Andrew Bott, Orchard Gardens principal.