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Park Rapids’ Title I funds offer opportunity

Enacted by former President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is a federally funded program that aims to provide equal access to education for all students, promote higher standards in accountability and close the achievement gap among student groups by providing additional funds to schools for resources.

These funds, once allocated, become then known as ‘Title 1’ funding in school districts. 

Authorized by Congress in 2001 and signed into law in 2002 by former President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) re-organized the government’s flagship program for educating disadvantaged students, effectively changing its course - and name - forever.

Nationwide, schools are now ranked among each other according to a scoring system called adequate yearly progress (AYP). A school must demonstrate AYP in areas of reading, math, graduation rates and at least on other academic indicator in order to receive Title 1 funding.

To measure AYP, schools must administer standardized assessments to their students on an annual basis. These assessments allow state agencies to develop specialized goals to increase their district’s overall AYP.

Once goals were created, schools were required to increase their proficiency in the state assessments to 100 percent by 2014, in accordance with NCLB.

However, it can be argued that a critical flaw in this AYP scoring system arose when the 100 percent proficiency standard necessary to receive funding remained challenging and often nearly impossible to achieve for schools already struggling to meet state standards. Often the schools that would need the most additional funding couldn’t meet the standards necessary to receive much of any. 

If a school did not meet proficiency standards for five years straight, it would be federally forced to take corrective action including either closing the school, or drastically changing staff – including all major office personnel, as well as, the principal.

Realizing the flaw, Minnesota applied for – and was granted – an ESEA flexibility waiver, essentially allowing the state’s schools to change the way in which the individual AYP would be measured going forward.

The standard has been changed from the 100 percent proficiency rating in 2014 to a new goal of reducing the achievement gap by 50 percent in 2017.

All Minnesota schools are now measured by two score systems called the Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR) and the Focus Rating (FR). The MMR and FR scores are derived from annual assessment scores taken from student testing (in accordance with the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) assessment provided by the Minnesota Department of Education).

The MMR looks at proficiency, growth and achievement gap reduction while the FR includes data only on students of color, students in poverty and special education students in the areas of proficiency and achievement gap reduction. Two subjects, math and reading, are the primary subjects included in the MMR and FR.

Schools are then ranked into subgroups according to their assessment scores. The subgroup designation a school receives directly determines the amount of funding in which they will be allotted.

There are five subgroups in which every school is placed: reward schools (representing the top 15 percent of schools based on the MMR ratings), celebration eligible schools (representing the top 25 percent of schools below the reward school designation), continuous improvement schools (representing the bottom 25 percent of schools), focus schools (representing the bottom 10 percent) and priority schools (representing the final 5 percent of most persistently low-performing schools).

The latter half are required to formulate “fix-it plans” to determine where any funding will go – a measure largely considered to be punitive.

Park Rapids Area Schools were rewarded the celebration eligible designation this past school year and currently await their designation to determine 2013-14 funding.

“We apply for the Title 1 grant every year through the Minnesota Department of Education,” said Connie Fondow, Title 1 director for Park Rapids Area Schools since 2005. “We submit the grant and they read through it and either approve or deny it based on their criteria. We’ve been a Title 1 school for as long as I have been here and I think we would have to be non-compliant in some area in order for us to not get a yearly grant again.”

Once the funding is received, Park Rapids is then able to disperse the funds into areas they see fit – often providing valuable resources to students in need.

“(Last year’s) Title 1 funding went to student resources including a leveled library, which is a smaller library – taking up about half a classroom – that offers multiple copies of books categorized by reading levels and topics for teacher’s to choose from,” Fondow said. “A teacher can check out the book and use them for their small group sessions or in class as they see fit. The other big funding purchase from Title 1 was the purchase of iPads. Gradually over the last two years or so we have purchased around 60 iPads for educational use largely by Title 1 children.”

Fondow stresses that the Title 1 program currently offered at Park Rapids remains autonomous from other special education programs already available.

“Title 1 is a completely different program from special education. It’s designed as an intervention to help keep kids up with their peers. Most children, through assessments done in the classroom and by teacher observation, are designated for further attention by the teacher,” Fondow said.

Students designated for additional instruction - made possible through Title 1 funds - are often provided it at a time deemed conducive to an overall positive learning environment.

“The teacher will try and have these small groups coming out at a time when major class instruction is not happening. The teacher will often teach the lesson and then the child will come out of the room where we will supplement what they were just taught. We give them a boost, more repetition or explanation they maybe haven't gotten previously. We don’t supplant normal classroom instruction, we supplement it,” Fondow said

Other Title 1 certified teachers include Gina Porozinski, Josh Cook and paraprofessional Sara Poehler. Title 1 funding in Park Rapids services grades K-4, or about 170 children total. Although the district has the option to apply for additional K-12 funding, they chose to concentrate solely on early education.

“We could have written the grant for K-8 or even K-12, but we only wrote it for K-4 because then we can really concentrate on early intervention; that is what we believe is going to be the most effective. Rather than spreading people and money out for K-8, we really wanted to zero in on the K-4 so it is a concentrated early intervention,” Fondow said.

Fondow sees Title 1’s continued funding pivotal to the success of many students in the district.

“We also want to make sure that we are reaching the right kids too,” she added. “The criteria for being in Title 1 would be those children who are significantly behind in the classroom according to teacher observation and assessment. Students can also come and go in the program; it’s not a locked-in program. Some change in and some change out. It’s not as if it’s a label that stays with you, or a stigma.”

As for now, Fondow likes the state her district is in and its direction heading forward, even with the ESEA flexibility waiver set to expire after the 2015-16 school year.

“I could always wish for more personnel in a perfect world. But we would really have to be creative to service students the way we do without Title 1 funds,” Fondow said.

Nick Longworth
A graduate from St. Cloud State University, Nick photographs and writes a variety of stories for nearly every section of The Park Rapids Enterprise. His duties also include section layouts and online content submission.
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