Last week’s episode of “Chicagoland”  on CNN once again featured Fenger High Principal Liz Dozier as a heroine trying to help her students get an education while coping with intense violence in the surrounding Roseland neighborhood. At the same time, Dozier has to deal with the fact that Fenger’s hefty federal grant, which paid for services to support students’ social and emotional needs,  was about to run out.

Fenger is one of 19 high schools in Chicago to be awarded a multimillion dollar School Improvement Grant. Along with Harper, Marshall and Phillips, Fenger was part of the first cohort of schools from 2011.

These grants targeted the bottom 5 percent of high schools in the nation. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s idea was to throw so much money at the schools that lack of resources would cease to be an excuse for low achievement.

The cliffhanger in the last episode of the Chicagoland series, which was filmed last year, is how Fenger will fare once it loses the $6 million grant. The answer: Fenger lost 36 of 100 staff members, including 10 teachers, four security guards and the school’s social worker.  

In fact, few CPS schools have a full-time social worker on staff. In 2012, Dozier fretted about the potential loss of a worker who ran much-needed group and individual therapy sessions on trauma and anger management. 

Altogether, Fenger and the other three schools that received School Improvement Grants in 2011 have lost 126 staff members as their grants ran out this year, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS employee rosters.

These schools were hit with a double whammy:  losing the grant while continuing to lose students, which meant a loss in district funds. This year, Fenger has 87 fewer students compared to last year and the freshman class has just 75 students, down from 102 last year. 

Enrollment loss from neighborhood schools is a citywide trend caused by population loss from  distressed neighborhoods as well as the opening of charter schools that draw students away from traditional schools. 

The Fall 2011 Catalyst In Depth questions whether the School Improvement Grant initiative can save schools that are rapidly losing students. 

To get the grant, schools and districts had to promise to enforce one of several drastic strategies. Fenger and five other high schools fired the entire staff in a process called turnaround. Other schools have undertaken what is called transformation, a strategy in which school employees stay on but the school partners with an outside institution to improve education.

Schools were charged with using the grant money to develop programs that could be sustained once the money ran out. But that challenge is often nearly impossible. Therapy sessions, anti-violence training, tutoring and other supports require staff–and it is hard to “sustain” people without money to pay them.

The early results from the School Improvement Grant initiative, both in Illinois and nationally, have been mixed. A 2012 Illinois study found that attendance, truancy and mobility improved, but not academics.  The findings are similar in CPS.

However, Fenger has posted more impressive results, with the percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards doubling in three years.

A federally-funded national study released in November 2013 showed that two-thirds of schools saw an uptick in test scores, but the rest saw declines. 

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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