Curtis seeks grant to help it improve

Wichita school leaders are looking to a federal grant to help Curtis Middle School off the list of the five lowest-performing, high-poverty schools in the state.

The 600-student middle school at 1031 S. Edgemoor is applying for a $6 million, three-year grant to hire staff and provide training for teachers to better help students learn.

"The way we do things needs to change," said principal Stephanie Wasko, who started at Curtis this year as part of a restructuring plan already under way.

Based on state test scores, Curtis, along with three Kansas City schools and one Liberal school, were named the bottom five schools in the state in March.

The title has made Curtis eligible to receive up to $2 million a year in federal grants to improve student achievement.

Eleven schools from five districts statewide are vying for $22 million in school improvement grants, said Julie Ford, director of title programs and services at the Kansas State Department of Education.

The federal Title I program gives money and resources to schools with high poverty rates, such as Curtis.

The grant applications are highly competitive, and she said the state plans to name winners at the state school board meeting on June 8-9.

Curtis' application stands out because it includes a proposal that requires daily training for teachers, Ford said. Curtis would set aside one class period a day for teachers to attend a training class together.

"It is an innovative, out-of-the-box thinking to do staff training with teachers," she said. "It has a lot of promise."

Inserting a training class each day will mean Curtis would have to hire more teachers — and need more money to pay them — to teach the same amount of students.

Ford said the additional training might attract and retain teachers interested in improving their skills.

The Curtis application also focuses on:

* English Language Learner students by encouraging all teachers to earn a certification to better communicate with the 40 percent of students who need to improve their English skills

* Parent involvement in hiring more staff to engage parents who speak limited English

* Data-driven teaching using a test score data management system that helps teachers pinpoint what areas students are struggling in

* Student access to technology for projects and after-school programs

The hands-on, project-centered lessons will be offered during the day for struggling students, Wasko said.

"It gives a reason them to know something," she said.

Wasko said all students will be able to participate in the project-based lessons in the school's large after-school program, which serves 200 to 300 students.

Federal grant

The federal grant is a new type of funding, called a school improvement grant, in which the school has to follow one of four turnaround models.

Most of these models include replacing principals or staff.

Curtis would follow a transformation model because it already started a turnaround model this year by replacing the principal and much of the staff.

This restructuring was done as a requirement for consistently not meeting test score goals under the No Child Left Behind Act, and Wasko said these improvements would continue no matter what.

"Even without the grant, we'll continue to make progress," she said.

Fast turnaround

Being in the middle of the restructuring process allowed Curtis the chance to make use of the grant money by August, said Denise Seguine, the district's chief financial officer.

But that wasn't so for the five of Wichita's 11 high schools that landed in the bottom 5 percent of high-poverty high schools, she said.

The turnaround model would have to be implemented in August for the high schools, and Seguine said that's too short of a time period when preparation doesn't start until April or May. But that doesn't mean the district is not chasing the competitive grants, she said.

"We have an opportunity next year," Seguine said. "We could use this (coming) year for planning."

Ford said the state will re-do the list of persistently lowest-performing schools in August, when education officials expect more federal money for school improvement grants.

Wasko said with an estimated 10 percent increase in math and reading scores this spring, Curtis will be working its way off the list.

"We're going to make sure it happens," she said. "We recognize the problem and are heading in the right direction."