St. Paul is looking to give its struggling schools a boost.
Instead of distributing money to the schools based on enrollment numbers, Minnesota’s second-largest district is forging new territory by factoring in demographics and performance of students in the district’s roughly 70 schools and programs.
The goal is to give schools that face the highest hurdles extra resources to help them catch up.
“It’s about knowing what your core problem is and putting your resources where they need to be to deal with that problem,” said Michael Baumann, the district’s chief business officer.
The changes are part of a broader push to shift decisions about staffing from principals and parent-led site councils to the district office. They come not without trial and error - and some pushback from schools that saw leaner educator teams. And the changes come with questions not about whether they will work, but how much improvement they will spark.
Until now, St. Paul gave schools money for teachers and other staff based largely on their enrollments. Principals got to set class sizes and decide what support staff to hire.
That approach, district leaders say, bred major discrepancies between class sizes and offerings at various schools, and it did little to narrow a gap in achievement between the district’s low-income and minority students and their peers - the core problem the district is tackling with Superintendent Valeria Silva’s “Strong Schools” overhaul plan.
“In the past, we just said: ‘Here’s your allocation. Have a nice day,’ ” Baumann said. “By leaving it to chance, we have proven over time not to be successful.”
This year, the district set class-size ranges based on the percentage of students at each school who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In grades four through six, for instance, the district was shooting for roughly 26 students per class in schools with 70 percent or more low-income kids and closer to 30 in other buildings.
The district also is deploying almost 140 so-called intervention specialists - teachers who work closely with students who are struggling the most with reading and math. Schools got one - or as many as eight, in the case of Johnson High - depending on factors such as student turnover and math and reading test scores.
AGAINST THE TREND
Minnesota education experts said St. Paul might well be the state’s first district to weigh school staffing budgets using student demographics and performance. Some federal and state dollars have long been earmarked for low-income and special-needs students but, says Scott Croonquist of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, districts across the state still largely tie building funding to enrollment.
The St. Paul changes fly in the face of recent carrot-or-stick philosophies about what spurs school improvement. The federal No Child Left Behind law tends to punish schools that lag on standardized tests, for instance, by making them spring for busing to higher-performing schools.
The Obama administration has favored incentives for schools that deliver, and the Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature this summer approved extra money for schools where more third-graders are proficient in reading starting in 2013.
But in recent years, about a dozen large urban districts across the country have tried a different tack: Help struggling schools with extra money.
The early results? The approach can work beautifully, says Michael Casserly of the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools - but with a couple of key caveats. A guaranteed formula to factor in student demographics and achievement is tough to come by. And the shift tends to work when extra resources are given to struggling schools without dipping into the pots of higher-achieving schools, where staff can feel penalized for success.
“It makes a lot of common sense to put more resources where the need is greatest,” Casserly said. “The fact is that doesn’t always make the difference people hope it will make.”
A few districts such as Washington, D.C., have moved away from weighed staffing allocations, Casserly said. Washington’s formula appeared to favor smaller schools, even those without many low-income students.
“People always ask, ‘If you send in more money, will you see better results?’ ” said Karen Hawley Miles of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit that helps large urban districts, including St. Paul in 2006, improve efficiency. “Depends on how you spend it.”
Hawley Miles said funding formulas factoring in demographics and achievement are part of successful school-overhaul efforts in cities such as New York and Baltimore. In those districts, struggling schools that get extra money also tend to get more flexibility in how to spend it.
Taking poverty and achievement into consideration when crunching funding numbers is “a trend, but it’s not a tidal wave,” Casserly said. “A lot of it has to do with scarcer public school resources.”
In St. Paul, the $198 million in staff funding the district divvied up among its regular schools rose by only about $800,000, or less than a half percent, over last year.
So when the district overhauled the way it does the distribution, “Some schools saw an increase,” said Jaber Alsiddiqui, the district’s chief budget analyst. “Some schools saw a decrease, and we went back and forth trying to justify some of it.”
The district’s formula didn’t always yield staffing numbers schools could work with - particularly if they didn’t fall in any of the categories with extra staffing money.
District leaders heard about it from principals and vocal parents, and in some cases they made adjustments. In a bid to fund small-group and one-on-one work with struggling students, St. Paul will have more “split” classrooms, shared by students in two grades.
At Maxfield Magnet, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, new class-size guidelines would have called for a classroom shared by fifth- and sixth-graders. The school, with one of the highest per-pupil allocations in previous years, saw a drop in funding as the district sought to even out large differences among buildings.
Principal Nancy Stachel said a split classroom would not have worked for the school’s demographics. She made that case to the district, which provided funding for an extra fifth-grade teacher.
“We needed to balance out class sizes across the district while factoring in the individual needs of the schools,” Stachel said. “The district recognizes there’s one pot of money, and there needs to be an equitable way of dividing it.”
Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary, where 97 percent of students get free or reduced-price lunch and two-thirds lag behind in reading, got almost $200 extra per student. The money all went to intervention teachers who work with students in small groups throughout the school day.
“The district wanted to even the playing field, and it looks a lot different here this year,” said Principal Angelica Van Iperen, adding: “I am certain we will see improvement. The question is how much.”