Nineteen of the state's lowest-performing schools are getting nearly $40 million in federal grants starting in January to improve student outcomes. Each school will receive between $690,000 and $3.7 million to put towards improvement plans over the next five years.
"We really see it as an opportunity to make improvements in schools that will not only impact the students who are attending those schools now, but in the future," said Donna Brown, the Department of Public Instruction's director of federal programs.
The 19 schools represent eight different school districts: five schools in Durham County, three in Wilson County, three in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, three in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, two in Wayne County, and one each in Bertie County, Nash-Rocky Mount and Gaston County.
The schools' local boards of education submitted applications to North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction to win the grants to "turn around" the schools. In order to be eligible, the schools had to have a high percentage of low-income students, and they had to be among the 5 percent "lowest-performing" schools in the state, based on student test scores.
The schools have to use the funds to put into action one of the school turnaround models laid out by the federal government. Those models vary in their extremity - from overhauling instruction strategies, to converting to a charter school, to replacing the principal and half the staff.
York Chester Middle School in Gaston County is undertaking the most extreme transformation. It will replace its principal and at least half of its staff, as well as increase learning time.
Most other schools are replacing their principals, but not necessarily their staff. They also have to increase learning time, and adopt a number of other reforms.
A few schools will keep their principals and use funds to scale up services that address student behavioral needs.
This is not the first time the federal government has awarded the School Improvement Grants. Since 2010, the federal government has given out nearly $144 million to North Carolina schools to put towards three-year improvement plans.
Research is mixed on how well prior federally-funded turnaround initiatives worked in North Carolina. Brown said there were three low-performing Title I schools that became some of the highest performing Title I schools in the state under a turnaround model. And research from Gary Henry at Vanderbilt University suggests the models boosted student scores on state tests in the first three years.
"We did see some substantial improvements in a great number of schools," Brown said. But she said the there were also some areas where the results were "not so positive."
But research from Helen Ladd at Duke University suggests the school turnaround models actually had a negative impact on North Carolina elementary and middle schools, including a drop in math and reading passing rates on state tests, high teacher turnover and increased administrative burden.
Brown said the new federal requirements for turnaround schools are better and more flexible.
"The new final requirements that came out a couple of years ago were to to address some of, I think, the challenges of those first few years of implementation that we experienced," she said. Brown said in those early years it was difficult for many rural schools to find new principals and staff, as required by some of the turnaround models.
Below are the schools that received awards, and the amounts awarded.