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Reading grant lost

Ohanian Comment: Here's the reaction of a teacher in another city: "There is a big part of me which would LOVE it if our district lost Reading First funding. A good chunk of the money my school receives goes to pay for a literacy coach who does nothing but the data entry required to continue to receive the funding! One of our primary teachers estimates that she spends 2 hours per week doing the assessments required by the grant; that's 16% of her language arts instructional time. Then there are all the other horrors inherent in 'teaching' a scripted program promoted by RF. Is there any way we can send our RF money to Denver?

By Nancy Mitchell

Denver Public Schools is the only district in Colorado to lose federal funding after failing to make sufficient progress on state reading exams.

The district also was cited for failure to comply with the Reading First program. Exchanges between DPS and state officials reveal tension over who was in control of the stringent federal plan.

The result: $1.8 million lost for the 2005-2006 school year, money that was intended for 10 high-poverty elementary schools across the city.

The funding was to be the final piece of a three-year grant totaling $5.9 million.

Principals of the 10 schools, including Norma Giron at Fairview Elementary, learned of the funding loss when they returned from summer break. District officials sent an e-mail but not much explanation, she said.

Giron said her school used the funds to purchase books and materials and to pay for substitute teachers so regular classroom teachers had time for training and to analyze their students' progress.

Other schools used the funds to hire literacy coaches, she said. Each school received about $150,000.

"You just do without," Giron said Friday when asked about the dollars lost.

Reading First is one of the grant programs created under the federal No Child Left Behind act. It provides for training and materials for teachers in grades K-3, but it also requires stringent monitoring and results.

Some districts, including DPS, have chafed at the supervision. State officials largely bear the burden of monitoring districts under the federal plan.

"It's the most prescriptive federal program that I've worked with over the past 20 years," said William Windler, assistant commissioner for special services at the Colorado Department of Education. "It's very tight."

Denver received its initial Reading First grants for the 2003-04 school year. DPS was one of 21 Colorado school districts in the first wave of recipients.

Another 27 school districts received their first year of funding this year. A total of 85 schools now receive Reading First dollars. That number doesn't include the 10 DPS schools that had their funding pulled.

In their 2003 grant application, DPS officials described their plan to meld the Reading First program with the district's elementary literacy plan. They identified 10 schools as recipients, picked largely because of their high poverty levels and because most served high numbers of English language learners.

DPS was awarded $1.8 million the first year and $2.3 million in 2004-05, Windler said. A final $1.8 million was to come this year.

But it's clear from written exchanges between district and state officials that friction set in early.

In late 2003, when state officials were making the monthly school visits required by the federal plan, they reported that teachers at one DPS school "had received Reading First information only hours prior to the CDE site visit."

In response, DPS told state department staff not to enter its schools without getting permission from, or being escorted by, district administrators.

"CDE representatives appear to be managing Reading First implementation," DPS officials wrote in a Jan. 30, 2004, letter to the state.

They said that was "unacceptable" and that "management of all components of the district's instructional program must come through the district's administrative structure."

DPS and state officials also disagreed on whether Reading First and its five required components of instruction - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension - were being taught properly in DPS schools.

The final straw apparently came with the release of state test scores. To keep their federal funding, at least half of Denver's 10 participating elementary schools needed to hit progress targets. Only three did: Fairview, Remington and Smedley.

State officials set the targets on the state's third-grade reading exam, using the results of the 2003 tests as a guide. For example, they calculated that 39.1 percent of Swansea Elementary's third-graders achieved reading proficiency on the 2003 state reading test. Certain students, such as those new to the school, were pulled from the mix.

After two years of the Reading First funding, Swansea's goal was 47.1 percent on the third-grade reading test given in early 2005. The school didn't make it. Neither did the six other DPS elementaries.

All other school districts receiving Reading First funding, including Commerce City, Jefferson County, Pueblo and Sheridan, made the required progress, Windler said. At least half of their participating schools met their progress goals.

In June, CDE officials notified DPS that it was likely to lose its third year of Reading First money. DPS filed an appeal, but on July 1, the appeal was denied.

DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet said he can't comment on what happened before he took over the district's top post in mid-July.

"I'm always concerned when the district loses revenue," Bennet said, "but I'm a lot more concerned about the flatness of our reading scores."

He said he doesn't know if the failure to meet the progress goals is more evidence that the district's literacy plan, already controversial, is foundering.

"That's why I've asked the Council of Great City Schools to come in and do an evaluation" of the district's instruction programs, including literacy, he said.

The Washington, D.C.-based council is expected to bring a team of urban educators to Denver in coming weeks and issue a report within 50 days.

Giron, the Fairview principal, said some DPS officials grumbled that Reading First did not work well with the district's literacy program. She disagreed, saying she likes both.

"All good reading instruction includes those five components," she said.

She also said her staff worked well with the CDE staff who visited monthly, benefiting from the feedback.

"Even if you're being told to do something, you have to take it as a positive and say, 'How is this going to work for me?' " Giron said. "We will continue with the best practices we learned and put them to good use because it's for the betterment of our kids."

10 schools affected by lost funding

Denver Public Schools is the only school district in Colorado to be denied a third year of funding from the federal Reading First program. The district lost $1.8 million for 10 schools for 2005-06. Here are the schools affected and the percentage of third-graders scoring proficient or advanced on state reading tests this past spring. Statewide, 71 percent of students achieved reading proficiency:
Elementary Area % proficient/advanced %free/reduced price lunch
Ashley East Denver 45 87
Barnum Southwest Denver 18 89
Fairview Southwest Denver 57 96
Fallis Southeast Denver 35 80
Ford Northeast Denver 28 87
Gilpin North Denver 30 89
Mitchell North Denver 21 92
Remington Northwest Denver 55 87
Smedley Northwest Denver 72 89
Swansea North Denver 42 95


— Nancy Mitchell
Rocky Mountain News
The research also found that children benefited from the boost to family income whatever their age.


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