In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tapped $3 billion in federal stimulus funds to supercharge the existing School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which gives states money to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

A year later, four Chicago Public Schools won SIG funds: Fenger, Harper, Marshall and Phillips high schools. Eventually, 20 CPS high schools would win grants, typically $6 million over three years, to give themselves substantial  makeovers. (In 2014, for the first time, three CPS elementary schools won SIG grants.)

The goal of the grant program was to get big improvement in student outcomes. “We want transformation, not tinkering,” Duncan said in a 2009 speech.

But making big change for students in urban high schools with a history of failure is perhaps the toughest challenge in U.S. education. At Marshall High School, among the first in Chicago to win SIG money, then-principal Kenyatta Stansberry made some headway on school culture and lifted the school’s special-education program out of state sanctions. But making transformational progress on academic achievement eluded Marshall.

Meanwhile, schools like Marshall—non-selective, neighborhood high schools in tough city neighborhoods—also have slid into fiscal crisis. With the advent of charters and other schools of choice in Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities, these neighborhood schools are losing students—and thus dollars—at a rapid rate. A three-year infusion of unsustainable cash could not make up for the loss of funds due to declining enrollment.

See “Last ditch tactic,” and “Why it matters,” Catalyst October 2011


To its credit, CPS learned from its first go-round with SIG. In the second round, it sought schools that already showed an “upward trajectory” that could be accelerated with a sudden infusion of cash. In these cases, the district favored the less-dramatic “transformation” strategy rather than engage in wholesale uprooting of staff. That strategy worked at Hancock High, where on-track rates quickly soared.

Two years in, collaborative reporting by education news organizations found lots of action among states and districts, some strides on school culture and academic rigor, but no solid advances in academic achievement. A local report on Illinois’ first SIG grants showed similar findings.

Most recently, another federal report on SIG schools suggests the grants did not provide much bang for the buck. Last month, a Politico story contrasted the success of Miami’s SIG high schools with Chicago’s struggles, arguing that the revolving door of CPS leadership left SIG schools here in limbo.

See “Federal money jump-starts school ‘transformation,’” and “Federal program a work in progress,” Catalyst April 2012


Nationally, SIG as we know it is about to disappear. The long-awaited rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known popularly as No Child Left Behind, would consolidate SIG back into the general Title I fund, which supports low-income and low-achieving students. But the proposal, which looks likely to become law, would allow states to increase their Title I set-aside by up to 7 percent for school turnarounds; currently they reserve no more than 4 percent.

As many feared, some SIG schools have struggled since their three-year grants ended. At Fenger, the end of the grant meant the school lost 36 of 100 staff members.

Meanwhile, Marshall High was awarded a second SIG grant in FY 2015, which provides $3.75 million over three years to support a transformation effort. According to Marshall’s application, the turnaround model was rejected this time “since Marshall has gone through so many changes, uprooting the staff once again would be negative to the culture and climate of the building.” Fenger and Phillips also reapplied but were not re-funded.

See “For the record: ‘Chicagoland’ and Fenger High,” Catalyst March 2014

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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