Clifton’s challenge: With grant money gone, will school’s improvements continue?

Clifton Elementary School staff, including Principal Julie Schmalz, left, lead pupils during the daily morning assembly at the school. Clifton Elementary received a federal School Improvement Grant in 2010 because it was one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. Since 2011, there has been a sharp increase in student success.

Photos by Dean Humphrey/The Daily Sentinel—Clifton Elementary principal Julie Schmalz greets students as they file out of the daily assembly. Schmalz says the end of a federal grant will not mean the end of progress at the school.



Enrollment: 433, plus 47 preschoolers (fall 2012)

Number of teachers: 32 (23 returned from 2012-13)

Percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch: 82 percent (fall 2012)


Source: Colorado Department of Education, School District 51


The U.S. Department of Education introduced School Improvement Grants in 2010. The program was intended to supply states with billions in federal funding so that they could try to turn around low-performing schools.

The first round of three-year School Improvement Grants starting in 2010-11 delivered more than $3.5 billion total to 829 schools nationwide. Of that tally, $12.2 million went to 21 schools in Colorado, including Clifton Elementary. A new cohort of schools started the grant each year, making the schools starting on the grant this school year the fourth cohort of grant recipients.

States must identify the worst-performing 5 percent of their schools, as judged by standardized testing, that receive Title I funding. Title I schools are those where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Schools in that bottom 5 percent are eligible for School Improvement Grant funding.

Schools on the list can apply for the grant and must use the money, if they get it, to close, restart the school with mostly new staff, or transform student test scores, teacher effectiveness and the quality of curriculum, among other tasks. The first group of grant recipients is transitioning off the grant this school year.

Source: Colorado Department of Education, U.S. Department of Education

Like most teachers at Clifton Elementary, Monica Clow entered the fall of 2010 wide-eyed and unsure how a $2.6 million boost from the federal government would impact the school.

The three-year, state-administered subsidy, known as a School Improvement Grant, was given to Clifton because it was one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. The grant funded an extra week of staff development courses before the start of each school year so teachers could evaluate test scores and set goals for the coming year. A large portion of the grant paid teaching coaches from out of state to observe classrooms like Clow’s and give teachers advice on their instruction methods.

Parent nights and summer school expanded. Consultants developed tests that teachers could use in their classrooms throughout the year to make sure kids were on track and helped Clifton teachers build a new curriculum. The curriculum taught children new state standards on a March through March schedule so students theoretically absorbed all grade-level content before annual spring Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests.

It was a lot to handle, especially for a third-year teacher.

“There were a lot of tears the first year,” Clow recalled.

It was worth the tears to see what happened next, she said. Students started coming to school on time more often with the addition of a morning assembly, where students are invited to sing, dance, say the Pledge of Allegiance and a Clifton pledge, and learn a few vocabulary words each day. Discipline problems subsided as students started the school day awake and in a good mood. Parents were called more often about behavior issues and teachers emphasized the importance of learning and getting along. Proficiency scores on TCAP, then called Colorado Student Assessment Program testing, shot up immediately in most subjects and grades.

Now, with the three years of the grant over and just six weeks to finish spending the last few dollars, the tests, the curriculum, the coaching advice, changes in culture such as more communication between teachers, and even the morning meetings will remain. But the coaches have gone home. Extra money for teacher development? Gone. And the $1,500 bonuses each teacher received for coming back each year during the grant (returning staff got $500) have disappeared this fall, with the exception of a bonus for teachers who went through all three years of the grant and returned this year.

What will be funded and what won’t is known. What will happen to the school now that the grant is gone is harder to predict.

After years of 40 to 50 percent turnover, according to Clifton teacher Pam Bency, Clifton had just one new teacher last year. The school started the 2013-14 school year with nine new teachers, plus a new principal. 

Bency, who came to Clifton in 2002, said she doesn’t believe this year’s staff changes are linked to the end of staff and faculty bonuses. After all, she said, there were still bonuses this year for teachers who made it through the whole grant-funded school transformation process. Instead, she said many who left had to move or decided to switch jobs as more positions opened in the district.

“2013 has just been a lot of moving around at all schools,” she said.

Clow said she would have stuck around this year with or without a bonus.

“It was never a thought for me. That’s not what kept me here. I started the process and I wanted to finish the process. I have no plans to leave,” she said.

Lasting changes

The school’s principal throughout the grant process, Michelle Lesser, is taking family leave this year but left the school in the hands of a person who knew the transformation process: the school’s assistant principal last year, Julie Schmalz. Schmalz said the end of the grant will not mean the end of progress at the school. She cited the items that get to stick around after the grant and new assistance to fill the gaps, including a new software program that will help the school track data and two half-time coaches who will assist teachers at Clifton and another elementary school. All Title I schools in District 51 hired teaching coaches this year, using federal Title I dollars, which are provided to schools where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

Even though Schmalz believes TCAP scores can remain above pre-grant levels without an extra $866,037 a year, she doesn’t think the school could have changed as quickly as it did without it.

“The grant made it happen at a much faster pace,” she said. “It is happening at the district level, it’s just going to take some time.”

Not all students know there was a grant or that it’s coming to an end. But if they started school at Clifton before the grant appeared, they likely realized something was happening.

Clifton fifth-grader Jorryn Beagley, 10, said every once in a while she would see “a herd” of teaching coaches and evaluators come to school and watch her class. Teachers also talked about TCAP a lot.

“Even in third or fourth grade they tagged a lot of our lessons to, ‘You’ll need to know this on TCAP,’ ” she said.

Fifth-grade classmate Ethan Coolbaugh, 11, noticed a lot of his teachers changed when he was younger. Some of his teachers from upper grades have left as well. But he has liked them all.

“If you need anything, you can always just ask for help. Almost nothing can go on without teachers knowing about it,” he said.

Ten-year-old Megan Krehbiel, also a fifth-grader at Clifton, has noticed the school’s rejuvenated emphasis on success.

“This school has pride in doing everything,” she said.

Keeping track

Clifton parent Leah Leach, who has a daughter, Ashley, in fifth grade at Clifton and had a son, Austin, at the school until he moved to middle school this year, said she didn’t know the grant was going away. She said her kids enjoyed the extra testing and opportunities that came along with the grant and she liked being able to go over test results more thoroughly at parent-teacher conferences.

“I would hope they’d be able to continue some of it but without grant money probably not all of it will continue,” Leach said. “Teachers don’t make enough and for some of those things to fall back on them would make it a lot harder.”

Parents, teachers and students won’t be the only ones anxiously watching what Clifton does next. The School Improvement Grant required districts and schools to report their successes and failures. A report evaluating school data and the impact of the grant over three years will be due to the state this fall.

Clifton is one of 21 Colorado schools that received the grant the first year it was offered. A couple of those schools, both in Pueblo, did not see enough success to get money all three years. A few others, including Mesa Elementary in Westminster, have seen tremendous growth, according to Brad Bylsma, who coordinates School Improvement Grants for the Colorado Department of Education.

The grant program is just starting its fourth year of awarding grants and there are no successful schools yet that have gone without the grant for a full year. That means the cautionary tales and imitation-worthy examples are still to come. Clifton will be one of those guinea pigs in future reports, including one due out next month where the CDE will track how the grant impacted Clifton and other schools.

So far, the results are mostly good for Clifton. It isn’t the highest-performing elementary school in the district, but a greater percentage of Clifton students moved from below grade-level to grade-level proficiency year over year in every TCAP subject each year of the grant, except for reading and writing in 2012. Fourth- and fifth-graders at Clifton in the spring of 2013 outperformed the fourth- and fifth-graders of 2012 in every TCAP subject but fourth-grade math, but third-graders of 2013 performed worse than the third-graders of 2012.

Program’s future

Bylsma said the grant lasts for three years and is used for extra services, not existing ones that a district can no longer fund, in order to make changes more sustainable and give schools time to adjust through ups and downs with a cushion. Bylsma said many schools, like Clifton, spent money on coaches and bonuses to keep teachers around because good teaching and keeping the same teachers for years correlates with success in many schools. He said he hopes to see schools that have experienced those factors during the grant period stay off the list of low-performing Colorado schools, which is how they qualified for the grant in the first place.

“It will be interesting to see if any of them pop back on to the eligibility list. There’s no federal guidance about what to do if that happens,” Bylsma said.

The Department of Education will provide performance managers to districts that received grants to help schools through the transition off grant funds and to provide advice during the change.

Bylsma said federal funding for the grant program is expected to last at least another year. Its future depends on the language of a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, he said.


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