Title 1 funding allows instructional options at 4 Westside elementaries

       “Title 1” is a term that's heard more and more around schools these days.
       It refers to Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, under which the U.S. Department of Education directs money to school districts based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.
       On the Westside, that's four elementary schools in District 11 - double what it was a year ago. Bristol has been Title 1 for several years, West since it opened in fall 2009. The new schools in 2011-12 are Midland and Jackson.

Asked for "success stories" from his school's Title 1 programs, West Elementary Principal Terry Martinez brought forward fifth-graders Marisol Estrada (left) and Johan Garcia, who have advanced to become part of the school's EAGLES accelerated-education program.
Westside Pioneer photo

       All are not far above 75 percent, which is the national cut-off requirement. A family income cannot exceed 130 percent of the federally set poverty level to qualify for free lunch, or 180 percent for reduced-cost lunch. So, for example, the highest annual income a family of four could earn and still qualify is $41,348.
       The total Title 1 funds coming to D-11 this school year is $5,470,108. Out of that, $161,938 is going to Midland, $208,858 to Bristol, $243,800 to Jackson and $327,474 to West.
       In interviews, principals at each of those schools described strategies they use with the funds. Most prevalent is the hiring of several part-time special teachers (some called “interventionists,” others “tutors”), who work with small groups of students on individually identified academic problems, primarily in reading and math. Other approaches include bringing in specialists to help kids with language barriers or just adding a teacher to reduce a certain classroom's size. Another use for Title 1 funds is buying educationally related tools - for instance, Midland used some of its money this year on iPads (tablet-size computers), according to Principal Jeremy Cramer.
       Does Title 1 money make a difference? At the two continuing Westside Title 1 schools, both principals (Manuel Ramsey at Bristol and Terry Martinez at West) emphatically say yes, pointing to steady test-score gains and success-story kids who've responded to the added attention. Still, many students somehow miss that spark, despite school staffers' best efforts at analyzing needs, meeting regularly to ensure instruction consistency and seeking creative ways to reach out to problem learners.
       The goal is to get students at least up to grade level by the time they leave elementary school, because, as educators explain it, the work gets harder at middle school and harder still at high school.
       An unfortunate hurdle, as District 11 Title 1 Coordinator Holly Brilliant noted, is that some kids are behind even before they start school. While some students have parents reading to them from infancy, “these little kids in Title 1 schools come to kindergarten and have never held a book in their hands before,” she said. “It is difficult if not impossible to get them caught up.”
       Offsetting the headway Title 1 schools might make is the fact that new students arrive every school year, many coming from difficult family situations, a blur of past schools or even different countries.
       Martinez used a medical analogy to describe his school's response. “We perform triage. We find out the needs they have and fix them, then fix the next thing.”
       Added Ramsey: “The number one question at all schools is, how do you spend your minutes. If you make every minute count, that's the best way to get the biggest results.”
       There are certain limitations to Title 1, under the law. The schools in their first year (Jackson and Midland) are called “Targeted Title 1” and as such are required to focus only on the students who have shown themselves to be the most “at-risk,” academically. Starting next year (because both schools exceeded the 75 percent mark again on the official “count day” last October), the “Title” status will apply to them school-wide, meaning more flexibility in fund usage and the freedom to run Title 1-funded programs affecting everyone.
       At Jackson, for example, that means “all students will be able to participate in Literacy and Math Nights sponsored by Title I, an activities bus, after- and during-school tutoring, Interventions, extra professional development (for staff), etc.,” Jackson Principal Sara Miller said in an e-mail. “More resources mean that more students will get individualized assistance and support on top of what is already happening in the classroom.”
       Part of the Title 1 effort is aimed at getting parents/guardians more involved in their students' education. Some of these efforts are more successful than others, as Miller found out at a recent meeting - intended to get input for the 2012-13 school-year strategy - that drew just a few people. By contrast, West Elementary's annual carnival, which isn't funded by Title 1, always attracts a high percentage of parents to the school, Martinez pointed out.
       That sort of situation - parents coming for fun but not the serious stuff - is not unsual, according to Brilliant. She's seen cases where Title 1 schools have planned meetings to discuss parental involvement, using a free dinner as an inducement, and “the parents eat and then leave,” she said.
       A new problem facing Title 1 schools is less money available. Ten years ago, when District 11 had more money and fewer students on free-and-reduced - about a third overall compared with more than half now - D-11 gave Title 1 money to schools with free/reduced numbers well below the federally required 75 percent limit. The district no longer can afford that. Also, the federal share to the district, which used to go up every year, has been dropping since 2006, Brilliant said. Furthermore, as more D-11 schools hit the 75 percent mark (like this year), there's less to go around. Martinez compared it to a shrinking pie from which more (and smaller) slices are being cut out.
       As a result, in 2012-13, all of the Westside schools are looking at allotments that are about 15 percent less than this year. “We'll just have to be more creative,” Miller said, gamely. Martinez' belief is that no matter how small the Title 1 funding becomes, “it's still critical to what we are able to do to help the students, to provide an extra person or an extra set of hands.”
       For now, to make sure they keep Title 1 status, school administrators remind parents to submit the forms (provided by the district) that could qualify their students for free or reduced lunches.
       This sets up a strange irony, in which schools, which are geared (at least in part) to teaching students how to be successful, are put in the position of hoping that the families they serve are at least 75 percent unsuccessful so that they (the schools) can, in turn, do a better job of teaching.
       Asked about this, Jackson's Miller responded that “we're not encouraging families to be poor, but we want them to take advantage of the resources at the school. There's no harm in filling out the form. Some even qualify but don't use it [the free lunches].”
       So what would happen if their schools fell below 75 percent? No principal relished that question. “Wow,” was Ramsey's initial response to the possibility, before adding, “We just wouldn't be able to provide the depth of services to kids and parents that we do now.”
       Faced with such a situation, Cramer said, “I would be sad because Title 1 is good for kids. And the need doesn't go away.”

Westside Pioneer article