What Can Money Buy?

As millionaire Stuart Sloan adopts a second school, test scores are beginning to come in for his first—and they aren't good.

In the fall of 1998, millionaire Stuart Sloan launched a program of jaw-dropping philanthropy at T.T. Minor Elementary, a poorly performing public school in the Central District where low-income African-American kids were predominant. Infusing more cash into a single public school than probably any benefactor anywhere in the country had ever done, Sloan started spending about $1 million a year on advantages most schools would kill for: class sizes limited to 20 students, an instructional aide in every class, a longer school year, before- and after-school programs, substantial teacher training, and—unlike any other school in the Seattle district—free preschool.

Four years later, test scores are starting to come in for the first batch of kids to receive the benefits of Sloan's munificence, and they are not good. In fact, on one standardized test, they are lower than scores at the school before Sloan's program began.

In the pre-Sloan era of 1996, the school's third graders averaged scores in the 39th, 40th, and 34th percentiles, respectively, on the reading, language, and math portions of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Last spring, third graders scored in the 37th, 35th, and 33rd percentiles—a slight drop of between 1 and 5 percentile points, but a drop nonetheless.

District Superintendent Joseph Olchefske casts doubt on the old scores because of a cheating scandal at the school, although that scandal emerged two years later, in 1998. He prefers to compare the new scores to those of 2000. The students tested then were not in the Sloan program yet; under a phase-in plan that added a grade per year, it had only begun for younger grades. That comparison shows a modest improvement of between 4 and 6 percentile points. Olchefske also points to a five-point improvement over the last three years on a district writing test, so that last spring, 45 percent of T.T. Minor's third graders met the standard.

Nevertheless, Olchefske concedes that scores on both tests are still very low, far below district averages, which range, for example, from the 55th to the 61st percentile on the Iowa test.

"Are we happy with scores in the low to mid-30s?" the superintendent asks. "No. Even 45 percent"—he says, referring to the writing scores—"we're unhappy with the results."

The surprisingly disappointing scores come as Sloan's New School Foundation, now involving anonymous donors as well, is funding a new public school in the South End beginning next month, called, appropriately enough, the New School at South Shore. The scores don't necessarily augur failure at the New School, which has several advantages over T.T. Minor, including a crucial chance to start from scratch. But they do underscore questions that are ever more pertinent as Sloan's second school gets off and running: In education, can money buy success? More specifically, can large amounts of cash blast through whatever obstacle it is that has led many people to take for granted that poor minority kids will be poor learners? Can Sloane, finally, prove that they can learn as well or better than anybody else?

You can look at the Sloan schools as a grand experiment, says David Ferrero, director of evaluation and policy research for education grants at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Like the investments that the Gates Foundation makes, Ferrero suggests that the Sloan program can be considered "research and development," not only assessing whether money works but ferreting out which of the various costly models for education reform out there prove effective (which then might be replicated less expensively).

Money, of course, won't do the trick if it's being spent on the wrong things. Margaret McKeown, editor of the American Education Research Journal, says she frequently sees schools dump money into bad software or teacher workshops that go nowhere because of a lack of follow-through.

But T.T. Minor seems to be doing all the right things, in line with the latest thinking in the field. "If I were to bet, I'd bet that this school would do really, really well," says Ferrero of the Gates Foundation.

Told about the last spring's results, Ferrero pronounced himself speechless.

"It's really too soon to have definitive results," argues Holly Miller, executive director of Sloan's New School Foundation. "It takes two or three years just to have a program in place," she says. She adds that the number of kids by which to judge the program is as yet small—it started with 80 pre-K and kindergarten students, a number of whom have since left for other schools.

Education leaders, however, believe it's not unreasonable to look for at least initial results after four years, especially given the dramatic influx of funding. T.T. Minor spent $10,173 per student last year (even more for just the students in the new program), about half of which came from Sloan. That compares to only $2,615 per student that the district spent last year for so-called "regular ed" kids, without designated special needs. Most associated with T.T. Minor acknowledge that the poor results, however preliminary, may reflect lessons learned.

"I can tell you that inheriting a ship that's already on the ocean is a much tougher job than starting a school from scratch," Miller says. Existing teachers at T.T. Minor didn't necessarily buy into the Sloan program. Even worse, under the phase-in plan that still has some students benefiting from Sloan funding and others not, T.T. Minor has existed as a have/have not school. That contributed to hostility from some in the community, who were suspicious of Sloan's motives anyway as a white guy parachuting in with pots of money; despite all the school's advantages, only 20 percent of the students who go there listed it as their first choice.

Those associated with T.T. Minor also now say that they have learned the importance of leadership. The principal that came in with the Sloan program, chosen by the superintendent with the input of the New School Foundation, seemed to prove a disaster. Sherill Adams' tenure was marked by a bad relationship with staff that drove teachers away. The superintendent removed her after two years, appointed an interim principal, and finally last fall appointed a well-regarded principal lured from Bellevue, Gloria Mitchell.

At the same time, there may be more upbeat lessons to learn from T.T. Minor. Miller of the New School Foundation says that reading assessments seem to highlight the big difference pre-K can make. The vast majority of the kids who started the Sloan program in pre-K are reading at grade level, according to Miller and principal Mitchell—a much better result than that of those who started when they were just a year older, in kindergarten. (It's the kids who started in kindergarten who scored so low on last spring's Iowa tests.) And the principal says she can see progress that may not show up on test scores. Students in the Sloan program communicate and solve problems far better than those not in the program, she says. Such progress makes school boosters believe T.T. Minor will show striking improvement eventually.

Located in the South End neighborhood of Rainier Beach, the soon-to-open New School at South Shore has already had a few rocks thrown in its path. Because it is slated to displace alternative South Lake High School, and because of lingering suspicions about Sloan, the New School helped fuel last May's raucous community protest outside Rainier Beach High School.

Nevertheless, much about the New School bodes well. It has all the incredible advantages of T.T. Minor without the key disadvantages. It is starting fresh, with 102 students in pre-K and K, adding a grade a year until it goes through eighth grade and has 600 students. And the leadership seems solid in the person of principal Gary Tubbs, who comes with a sterling track record after serving as the head of the coveted alternative school TOPS and as director of academic achievement in the administration of former Superintendent John Stanford.

In his office, decorated with Native American art on the wall and hanging from the ceiling, Tubbs reflects that the character of his school will be different from that of T.T. Minor. For one thing, the demographics are different in this ethnically and economically diverse part of town. Judging by its first year, the school will have many more whites, Asians, and Hispanics (24, 25, and 10 percent respectively, the remaining students being African American), and also many more immigrants, putting an emphasis on instruction in English as a second language.

A small, trim 50-year-old who darts around school clutching photos of incoming students that he has taken during home visits over the summer, Tubbs also likes to talk about his vision for the school as a place that nurtures the "whole child: mind, body, and spirit." To that end, students will take yoga in a special room set aside for that purpose. Tubbs excitedly shows it off: a white uniform lies on a yoga mat in the middle of the room, like the one that will be provided for every kid. Enrichment opportunities will also include art, music, and dance programs, whereas other cash-strapped schools in the district often have to choose among them. The legendary Pat Wright, director of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, will come in twice a month to work with kids.

Academically, the school will follow the same national models as T.T. Minor: a pre-K program developed by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Atlanta, which stresses literacy; and a program in subsequent grades known as the Audrey Cohen College System of Education, which has students designate a "purpose," or theme, for learning.

Considerable teacher training is involved, not one-shot workshops. On a recent visit, an instructor from the High/ Scope program was working with teachers in one of the open-plan, wall-free classrooms. At one point, she had all the teachers sit at a kids' table and use kid-size scissors to cut cardboard; role playing, she showed them how to prolong the activity for kids who are restless and how to challenge kids who have mastered the basics.

She's spending two weeks here and will be back for weeklong visits seven more times during the year, using some of that time to train teachers who can act as coaches on-site.

Will all this investment yield better results this time around? Tubbs says he's confident it will. "I know we have something to prove, and I'm willing to do that."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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