Infographic by Lisette Mejia and Molly Roy.

They belong to a club where membership hinges on low reading and math skills, and high drop-out rates. They’re some of the worst-performing schools in the state, even the country, and to shape up, the Mission’s six struggling schools took drastic measures to qualify for a share of a $45 million grant — including firing principals and replacing half the staff.

In December of 2010, Bryant, Everett, Buena Vista Horace Mann, Mission High and John O’Connell began receiving an average of $1.6 million a year for three years from the new federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.

Over the past several months, Mission Loc@l has sought to understand where, exactly, the money is being spent and why. We’ve searched San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) school board agendas for budget proposals, spoken with the executive director of the district’s School Improvement Grant, Kevin Rocap, and looked into specific organizations that have received contracts under the grant. We will continue to follow what is happening at Mission schools and how the money is being spent throughout the three years of the grant.

It is far too early to draw conclusions about the success or failure of the various strategies employed using the grant funding, but we felt it was important to report on the issues, explain the underpinnings of some of the strategies, and provide information to district residents on a major reform that is underway.

So far, we have tracked more than $7.7 million from December 2010 to December 2011. The biggest expenditure was for outside consulting. More than $2.5 million has been paid out to third-party organizations that provide advice related to school reform, rather than in-class personnel or direct one-on-one services to students.

Rocap said that, because the grant money was released halfway through the last school year, funding in the second year will reflect fewer partner contracts and more full-time and part-time hires.

Hiring did not begin until the winter and spring months of 2011, Rocap said. Additionally, the district spent only 32 percent of its budget in year one; the remainder carried over.

“That meant there were more people to hire in year two,” Rocap said.

The SIGs — including SFUSD’s total award of $45 million over three years — are meant to improve schools that rate in the bottom 5 percent nationwide.

Assistant Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, who oversees the Mission Zone of underperforming schools, said that five key factors guided decisions about where the money would be spent.

The factors are drawn from a study called “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago.” The report looked at several hundred underperforming Chicago schools over a seven-year period starting in 1990, to discover what elements proved most effective in improving performance. “School leadership sits in the first position,” the study concluded. The other four elements: “parent and community ties, professional capacity of the faculty and staff, a student-centered learning climate and an instructional guidance system.”

Guerrero said that the SFUSD’s goal is to put all five elements in place, because the Chicago study concluded that schools that accomplished all five showed great progress, while those that pursued only one or two were less successful. Improved schools achieved up to 95 percent attendance; reading skills at the top elementary schools improved an average of 10 percent, while math skills improved more than 30 percent at certain grade levels.

But some, including Mark Sanchez, who was the principal at Horace Mann Middle School last year, say it’s wrong to base reform at the Mission’s schools on the Chicago study.

“That’s not the kids we’re talking about,” said Sanchez, who is now the principal at Cleveland Elementary School in the Excelsior. “Chicago is so huge, and they already had a lot of resources in place. They put a lot into school city councils.”

Those councils developed after 1988, when the Chicago school system was decentralized, giving the local school councils significant authority over school finances, principal selection and more.

That, Sanchez said, was a benefit to begin with.

Additionally, Sanchez said, Bay Area students and their families have specific housing- and job-related needs that are different from those of Chicago families.

Rocap said that the Chicago research is nonetheless relevant and significant.

“They are urban schools that are highly diverse with large numbers of students of color; that’s more relevant than some suburb somewhere,” he said.

“We don’t want to just stick with something we’ve never heard of before,” he added. “We know what kind of a track record this has and how many people found it to be valuable and to make a difference. On what other basis would we make decisions?”

Who decides where the money is spent is determined by two factors. First, Rocap wrote in an email, are the federal requirements, outlined in the district’s original grant proposal, which dictate to a significant degree what is considered an allowable expenditure. For example, under the requirements, schools are only allowed to invest in materials, practices and partnerships that have proven to be effective. “So we may think it may be great to purchase something, but if there is not a good evidence or research base we can point to for that investment, it is not a good fit with SIG,” Rocap said.

Second, requirements called for the creation of a “turnaround” office to lead the reform in each district. The Mission Zone, as the office for Mission schools is called, is led by Guerrero. In keeping with federal and state requirements, as well as SFUSD’s grant application, zone leaders work with principals to authorize spending, Rocap said. They also seek input from other school members.

When it comes to monitoring the district’s spending, the California State Department of Education does not require detailed expense reports. According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the department has struggled to monitor the grant’s implementation.

The report found that as a result of California’s budget crisis, the funding available for state administration of school improvement dropped from the allowable 5 percent to 0.5 percent, “limiting the number of staff available to administer the program and monitor districts.”

At the end of each year, the state Department of Education assesses whether or not to renew the grant to districts and schools. After the 2010-2011 year, the state did not base this decision on whether test scores had gone up and schools had met their goals; the Chicago study demonstrates that significant improvement in test scores did not occur until after the second or third year of reform. And those schools that showed promise after only one year were often not in the top-performing schools after three years.

So how did California decide whether it should renew grants to the 92 SIG schools in the state? According to the GAO report, the decision was based on “one telephone conversation with each district at the end of the year.”

“Prior to those conversations,” the report continues, “the state had limited interaction with most districts for the purpose of assessing their implementation and was unable to conduct SIG monitoring visits for budgetary reasons.”

Below is a breakdown of the different types of expenditures the SIG funding was used for during the period from December 2010 to December 2011. It is based on expenditure reports provided by Rocap, which show program expenses through June 2011; a public records request response document; and our own compilation of proposals brought before the school board.

To understand the grant’s potential impact, it helps to look at this figure: there is enough money for each school to hire roughly 27 more teachers each year. Instead, the district, sometimes bound by federal restrictions, decided that the money would be better spent hiring consultants to advise teachers and administrators. This decision again reflects the Chicago experience.

Spending so much money on building capacity rather than on direct services may seem counterintuitive, but the Chicago report underscored its importance, citing two schools, two miles apart, that used many of the same approaches. One, Hancock, succeeded in raising test scores, while the other failed. “The sustained focus on instruction and professional capacity-building at Hancock also stands out as notable,” the report concluded.

Rocap noted that the types of expenditures may change depending on several factors, including whether the district hires for a given position.

The district’s overhead through June 2011 amounted to $165,000, Rocap said. The district received its own grant of more than $1 million, which went toward such expenses as salaries for staff like Rocap, a financial analyst, a clerk and a director of family engagement.

Chunk 1 — School Reform Consultation: $2.57 Million

The district has so far spent the largest part of the grant on consultants. Their role has been to aid the transformation process through academics, organization and changing school culture.

Take, for instance, a contract with Partners in School Innovation, a San Francisco-based organization specializing in school reform.

In the Mission, nearly $1.8 million has provided resources to Bryant, Cesar Chavez, Buena Vista Horace Mann and Everett schools from December 2010 to June 2012. On the ground, this means that consultants like Cameron Stephenson, one of the lead School Innovation Partners, spends a day and a half at Buena Vista Horace Mann, John Muir Elementary and Everett Middle School. She has helped teachers and administrators learn how to read data, advised an English teaching coach, restructured teacher planning time, helped monitor the principal’s email inbox and led classroom observations.

Then there’s a $179,750 contract between Bryant, John O’Connell, Mission High and the San Francisco Coalition of Essential Small Schools. The organization’s job is to support guidelines written into the SIG and come up with individual strategies for each school.

The organization, said Rocap, works with groups of teachers to revise lessons, target underserved students and help improve their scores.

Pivot Learning Partners was paid $98,225 to work at John O’Connell to assess “the current status of O’Connell’s transformation and to provide mentoring, coaching and planning support for the transformation effort” — the high school equivalent of Partners in School Innovation, Rocap said.

“Last summer, they worked with the principal and other leadership to do a very in-depth detailed plan for reform within the school,” he said. The group helped determine “what things we want to accomplish and timelines and who’s responsible and how [we are] going to get it done.”

Such reform consultations were required by the State Department of Education, Rocap said.

SFUSD’s promise to engage in these practices was a major factor in receiving the grant, he said, because it showed an understanding of what’s required for effective school transformation.

The hope, he added, is that these investments prove effective.

Chunk 2 — Partnerships Providing Direct Services: $1.39 Million

Consultation can only accomplish so much. There are organizations that offer more direct services, many of which fit into the community-school model, where schools are transformed into one-stop shops providing health care, parent education and other services. The Chicago report concluded that “reconnecting local schools to the parents and community that they are intended to serve is central for reform.”

This includes, said Rocap, tutoring programs and mental health and wellness services that change the school experience.

For example, Instituto Familiar de la Raza received $286,000 to enhance mental health at Everett, Buena Vista Horace Mann, Bryant and Cesar Chavez schools. But conducting individual counseling sessions with students is a small component of what the group does — more often, said program coordinator Cassandra Coe, it is trying to instill a positive environment at the school. Again, this follows the Chicago study, which found that creating a safe environment and healthy day-to-day social dynamic was key to success.

A representative from Instituto Familiar de la Raza is at the school to intervene when there are fights or problems involving students, and to talk to teachers about why bullying is happening in their classrooms. The group also leads meetings, called “mental health collaboratives,” where faculty including the school nurse, a special education teacher and the principal discuss how they can help make students and parents feel comfortable at the school. In addition, the organization implements an anti-violence curriculum at Cesar Chavez called Second Steps, which focuses on problem-solving and anger management.

Included in this category of expenditure is the $320,000 that went to Jamestown San Francisco, an organization that works at Buena Vista Horace Mann and Cesar Chavez Elementary. Jamestown staff have hosted two extra after-school classes for 40 children at the schools, started a student council class and led morning homework help sessions, among other services.

These efforts and others such as summer school sessions and classes for parents, Rocap said, are intended to help students become socially, emotionally, physically and academically healthy.

Chunk 3 — Personnel: $1.12 Million

Throughout the year, new faces made their way into the struggling schools. That’s because nearly $1.2 million of the budget has gone to new hires, but many of them work directly with teachers rather than students. The money also pays for substitutes and current staff who have picked up extra hours.

One example of the new personnel hired are teaching coaches. Across the six schools, 17 coaches work with teachers, training them to improve their classroom management skills, providing them with strategies on how to teach difficult lessons and observing their teaching styles. They observe how a teacher works before giving him or her suggestions on how to improve.

Two new types of teachers have also come on board, thanks to the grant: academic acceleration teachers and equity release teachers.

Academic acceleration teachers go into classrooms either to act as a second teacher working alongside the primary teacher, or to pull out groups of students in need of targeted instruction. The point is to free up the regular classroom teacher so he or she can focus on smaller groups of students. There are currently 27 full- or part-time academic acceleration teachers working at all of the Mission schools.

An equity release teacher is comparable to an on-site roving substitute, Rocap said. The job is to come in and “release” teachers by allowing them to step out for short periods of time for “reform purposes” — for example, to review student test scores with a consultant. Four equity release teachers work at Cesar Chavez, Buena Vista Horace Mann and Mission High.

“The value of having an on-site equity-release teacher is that he or she gets to know the school, the students and the styles and approaches of the teachers in a way that a randomly assigned substitute would not,” Rocap said. Release teachers proved effective at Hancock Elementary School in Chicago.

During the first year of funding, the district spent more than $320,000 on salaries for what’s called “teachers on special assignment” — teachers hired for a purpose other than a typical classroom role, such as these academic acceleration teachers and teaching coaches. Fewer of these teachers were hired during the last school year than this year.

Across the Mission’s schools, more than $27,000 was spent on substitute teachers.

There are more newcomers: community school coordinators. Every school has one, and they make close to $60,000 a year to act as liaisons between the community and the school. Their main job is to oversee partnerships with community-based organizations, like the Jamestown Community Center, that provide after-school classes. But they also organize workshops for parents, oversee mentoring programs, host college nights and even make home visits to talk to parents about their kids’ grades.

Chunk 4 — Curriculum and Supplies: $880,000

Through June 2011, Rocap said that almost $880,000 went toward instructional supplies and materials, and for student assessments.

Elementary schools have created classroom libraries; middle and high schools use READ 180, a software program designed to improve reading skills in students who score below grade level. To be specific: John O’Connell spent nearly $20,000 on books from Follett Library Resources for library books; and last year, Horace Mann Middle School spent close to $43,000 for READ 180.

Other expenditures were for laptops for teachers and “math manipulatives” such as pattern blocks, which students manipulate with their hands to gain an understanding of mathematical concepts. High schools have also used this money to help students start online advance placement classes that are not available at their school. Students are assessed through various tools, including oral language tests and software that provides end-of-chapter questions.

And when laptops break, Bryant Elementary can rely on the more than $2,700 it spent on three-year AppleCare repair contracts.

Chunk 5 — Professional Development: $496,000

Teachers and administrators need instruction, too, and that’s where spending on professional development comes in. This often means providing learning opportunities for school staff, whether through one-time workshops or mainstay partners who come up with ways to evaluate teachers.

For three days of workshops and five days of coaching for three teachers, John O’Connell paid $25,400 to the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd. The goal: to establish a reading apprenticeship academic literacy course for 75 students below grade level.

One of the main emphases, said Rocap, was to help teachers across different subjects find ways to get students writing, such as providing prompts in social studies reading.

Specific data on these students were not available, but Rocap said the district tracks grade-level data often. The workshop will not take place again, he added.

A professor emeritus from Cal State San Bernadino, Adria Klein, earned $107,000 to work at Bryant, Cesar Chavez, Muir, Everett and Buena Vista Horace Mann from August 2011 to June 2012. Her job was to coach coaches, implement a literacy framework and help principals create “structures for collaboration and peer coaching among teachers.”

Effective professional development is an important key to turning schools around, said Sam Redding, the director of the Center on Innovation and Improvement, which has provided extensive guidance to states, districts and schools on implementing their SIGs. A team that includes outside consultants works to implement long-term improvements; professional development is important to this process because it means the school isn’t just relying on one leader, like the principal, to make important decisions.

Critics, however, say professional development is costly and that its goals are vague.

Some consulting groups make a difference because they embed themselves in schools and form true collaborations, said Dr. Patricia Campbell, an associate professor of math education at the University of Maryland. But, she said, some professional development partners take on a “one-size-fits-all approach,” where they carry out strategies that don’t address a school’s specific challenges.

“Are they really partners? They’re a vendor with a service to deliver,” said Campbell, who received a National Science Foundation grant to research how teachers develop a better understanding of their subjects.

The effectiveness of professional development is not clear. A study from 2009 in the Elementary School Journal found that students in schools whose learning teams relied on formal protocols for meetings, such as those often provided by professional development, improved more than those in a comparison group of schools where that structure was lacking. But in a 2007 review of more than 1,300 professional development studies, only nine met rigorous scientific standards set by the What Works Clearinghouse, a branch of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, which reviews research on program impact.

School Improvement Grant expenses among Mission schools through June 30, 2011. Figures reflect the district’s expense report.

Whether for professional development, reform consultation or both, private consultants are receiving a significant amount of SIG money. Within San Francisco, the district hired outside parties directly, almost always based on their track record of success. Often these are groups that schools have worked with in the past, as is the case with Partners in School Innovation.

The federal government makes no stipulations about how much districts can spend on consultants and doesn’t monitor how much these outside groups have received — nor do most states, according to a study published in the Denver Post in February.

Nationwide, the only comprehensive report comes from a collaboration between the Education Writers Association, Education Week and the Hechinger Report, which was released in April. In 15 states that agreed to tally spending, an average of 25 percent of all SIG money went to private consultants, according to the article.

Locally, the Bayview Zone, like the Mission Zone, spent the most money on consultants in year one, Rocap said.

It is typical for schools to spend 20 to 30 percent of grant money on outside consultants, said Jeremy Ayers, the associate director for federal education programs at the Center for American Progress. The biggest problem, Ayers said, is the lack of supervision from the federal government, states and districts.

“The question should be: Where is the oversight for these outside providers? What are the goals they’ve set up front? What is the accountability?”

The GAO report found that the federal government does not review the work of outside contractors during the time they are hired, and that states vary in their supervision.

Chad Portney, a California official who monitors SFUSD’s SIG, said that statewide, a majority of the funding has gone to pay teachers for extra school time. For cases where expert advice is needed, some districts use staff already employed within the schools, while others are encouraged to use outside providers and to report their screening process to the state.

Districts are required to file quarterly expenditure reports, Portney said, which are compared to their original proposals to see if the expenses line up. Portney conducted site visits to SFUSD schools in February with another state official, and the federal government did the same during last school year. Officials interviewed administrators, parents, teachers, coaches and students, and conducted classroom observations.

The state continues to monitor the process online, requiring districts to upload evidence to an internal system. State officials look at staff lists, for example, to see if names have changed and new personnel have been brought in; they review benchmark test scores and look for growth; they require documentation that schools have extended the school day.

As for the district’s internal monitoring system, Rocap said that School Site Councils — governing bodies composed of school staff, parents and other members of the community — review and approve grant plans and expenditures and provide feedback on whether or not they accomplish their intended purposes. “If we said we were providing a certain kind of professional development at their school, did we actually provide it? And is it making a difference?” he said.

However, a monitoring report filed by Portney following his visit to the schools stated that SFUSD did not meet its leadership team approval requirements. “The evidence provided does not demonstrate that the SSC [School Site Council]/Leadership Team annually develops, reviews, updates, and approves the SIG components, including proposed expenditures,” the report stated.

The district needs to show improvements, the report continued, by “providing notice, agenda, and minutes of SSC meeting indicating how program services are identified, developed, implemented, monitored, evaluated, and improved…”

The councils have always monitored grant spending, Rocap said, but schools were not aware that these assessments had to be written into each school’s plan for student achievement. The district is making those changes, he said.

Ultimately, the question remains: can any amount of grant money help turn around a struggling school?

The answer depends on who you ask.

There’s such a thing as too much money, said Sanchez, the former principal at Horace Mann. “We got what we wanted,” he said, referring to the school’s expenses last year, and yet there was still money that hadn’t been spent.

The biggest problem, Sanchez said, is that the leftover money couldn’t go to other schools that needed it, but was instead rolled over to the next year.

There are other ways he would spend the grant money, too. “I’d give extra money to teachers — some for materials and a baseline amount of money just for doing their job.”

“They deserve it because they’re there,” he said.

Rocap has a different answer.

“We like to talk about how to take [SIG] money and make it sustainable, build capacity that we know will last longer. But can you always sustain this without more money?”

For Guerrero, who oversees the Mission Zone, the answer is no.

“I’m going to scratch up all the money I can find after SIG, even if it’s not $45 million.”