It wasn’t one thing that put Litchfield Community Schools’ elementary school on a path to becoming a “priority” school.
When Mary Sitkiewicz started teaching at Litchfield in the mid 1990s, she remembers there being more than 800 students. According to state data from last school year, the student count was down to 248.
Sitkiewicz says some students left because of state policies, like school choice. Others families moved from the small town souwthwest of Jackson when they couldn’t find work. All of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to state data.
A constant rotation of superintendents and other administrators, who meant well, Sitkiewicz said, kept the district’s priorities and focus in flux. The small district didn’t have a lot of wiggle room in the budget to invest either.
“It was a spiral,” she said.
She remembers when the elementary and high school were labeled “priority” schools. The “Priority List” is made up of the lowest-performing five percent of schools in the state, and schools that were previously in the five percent and haven’t improved enough to get off the list. Schools on the list for three years in a row could be subject to closure.
“When we hit that list and we had maybe 3% of our kids proficient, that was the end. That doesn’t bring students to a building either,” she said.
Becoming a priority school appears to be a turning point for Litchfield though. The district qualified for School Improvement Grants just as the Obama administration piled a bunch of new money in the fund, through the American reinvestment and Recovery Act. The district applied and won $1.3 million for the elementary school and $3.2 million for the high school. All grade levels are now housed in the same building.
Sitkiewicz, now Litchfield’s SIG coordinator, says the grant allowed them to invest in things they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Elementary students are equipped with their own tablets, teachers got professional development in and out of the classroom, and parents got a community liaison to boost involvement. There’s a new after school program to help students who are struggling, new science and reading program, and a revamped library.
She says the culture changed too. Adults shake hands with students in the morning, share good news and lesson plans with them. Teachers are looking at a lot more data to help them adjust lessons.
But the label still stings.
“People sometimes will say, ‘Oh you’re still a priority school, we’re going to take our kids to the neighboring district.’ It doesn’t go away,” Sitkiewicz said. “It’s just something that’s always in the back of your head. Like you’re just not good enough.”
A new report released this month by the U.S. Education Department shows, at least at the national level, that the SIG program had “no significant impact” on student success.
Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG -funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.
There’s no state by state breakdown of the data in the report.
Bill Witt helped oversee the program as the Supervisor of School Improvement Support at Michigan's Department of Education. He doesn’t dispute the findings in the report, but says it’s difficult to determine why the grants work for some schools and not others.
“Where the money is especially effective is allowing the schools and the districts to do some things to create a culture and a climate where everyone, and I say this half out of jest but also half serious, everyone down to the janitor is committed to turning that school around,” Witt said.
Michigan was awarded more than $242 million through the program since 2010. Witt says Litchfield’s elementary and high schools are two of 38 schools awarded SIG funding that have managed to get off the state’s list of low performing schools and shed the “priority” label.
But there are also more than a dozen schools that were SIG recipients that are included on the state’s recently released list of schools that face potential closure over academic performance.
Two of the grant recipients, Inkster High School and Beuna Vista High School, have already closed.
“Just giving money is not the answer. That’s not the solution, but it allows schools to think differently,” Witt said.
“We’ve jumped around so much in education with grants and programs, state laws and federal laws, that it gets real tough to say conclusively this thing you had in place for one or two years did anything, because we move onto the next one,” Witt said.
Witt notes that, in Michigan, all priority schools have had to implement some of the same models; grant funding or not.
He says the grant program is ending anyway. The final recipients were announced in August. Witt believes the federal government could give failing schools more flexibility in a new version of the program, based on an individual school’s needs.