As a former principal of one the lowest-performing schools in Stark County, OH, I found myself working collaboratively with the community to change our educational outcomes for students. Rev. George Dunwoody and I established the Hartford Middle School Community Collaborative (HMSCC). We knew the expectations for our students and families were low; state test scores were just one example. We knew we needed funds to expose our students to new experiences; our beliefs were that exposure changes expectations, but experiences change lives.

We needed the whole village, along with external partners, to make this work. Rev. Dunwoody and I sat down with a group of key community advocates and staff to brainstorm. Who did we need? What was our message? How would we increase the positive experiences of our students? We eventually were able to meet with churches, businesses, city council, and a political advocate from New York, who happened to be working in Canton, OH.

The meetings and the establishment of our community collaborative were a critical component of our students’ academic success. The Hartford Middle School Community Collaborative provided our students access to partnerships with the Greater Stark County Urban League, which assisted in providing our students summer employment and keeping them out of trouble. Aultman Hospital provided our students with six-week courses using project-based instruction to study the top 10 diseases impacting the African-American community. Each student in the Aultman project chose an illness and researched solutions to eradicate the disease. City council members who provided our students access to council chambers and explained the political process enabled our students to understand policy.

Mark Favors, our advocate from New York, established the New York Civic Leadership Institute. The New York partnership afforded our students the chance to shadow New York state legislators on lobbying day in Albany each year, in addition to placing our students on the campus of Columbia University annually. The Hartford Alumni Association was established. The alumni mentored our students and came in annually to provide career day opportunities. The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation eventually became a partner and provided significant financial contributions to extend after-school activities, provide capital for summer jobs, and incorporate yearlong academic and enrichment activities to support our community collaborative.

Numerous local churches and nonprofit organizations eventually became partners as a result of Rev. Dunwoody’s connections. Each church provided tutors, chaperones, and money for community cookouts to bring parents to the school. These partnerships were critical to our academic turnaround. The partnerships enabled our parents and students to become advocates for themselves and the community, and they increased the academic and personal expectations for our students. The collaborative financial support, along with the Eisenhower Foundation funds, allowed us to visit more than 20 colleges and universities over the course of my five-year tenure.

Each new exposure enhanced our students’ expectations. The students and staff began to change their academic aspirations. Both faculty and students were able to connect each new experience to their realities and use it to enhance the curriculum.

Hartford Middle School in Canton eventually moved from being an Academic Emergency F-rated school in School Improvement Year 8 status to an Effective B-rated school. With a 92 percent poverty rate, Hartford Middle School moved out of School Improvement status over the course of my tenure. Unfortunately, I was removed as principal and sent to a sister school (and the staff was reconstituted) in spite of coming out of School Improvement Year 8 status.

What I found was that the worse we did as a school, the more funding we received. The better we scored, the fewer resources we had. This was an anomaly to me. How could failure provide more funding? Why would academic achievement and closing achievement gaps leave a school destitute and with less human and social capital to sustain the growth? My research and personal experience helped formulate my theory that funding is in the failure, and poverty is a multibillion-dollar business.

The Problem

Although the abbreviation NCLB stands for “No Child Left Behind,” that is not what happened over the course of the 15-plus years of this education policy. Politicians sold the public on the abbreviation under “school choice” for the poor students of America who found themselves in low-performing urban schools. Actually, additional supports that once were associated with poverty now were re-allocated to experimental charter schools under the espoused value of school choice. State education agencies allocated standard federal dollars for education programs and then took funds from each district to support school-choice options. Under this program, funds were sent directly to the state education agency, then allocated to the local school districts, with additional supports going to schools and districts in high-poverty areas.

In reality, the federal government under NCLB set up a systemic process that provided additional supports for failure and withdrew support when schools were demonstrating growth. Under NCLB, $3 billion in federal funds were funneled into school improvement grants (SIGs). The NCLB sanctions required schools to identify the lowest-performing schools in the state and set aside federal dollars targeted to serve those schools.

My research suggests that schools were rewarded with additional financial support in the form of SIGs and Race to the Top funds based on their failure to reach adequate yearly progress (AYP) benchmarks. In layman’s terms, “failure” meant the receipt of more federal financial support and allocations of resources such as staff, programming, and extended school-day options for failing to make AYP and continuing to stay in School Improvement status.

Millions of Dollars Dispersed

On the back end, millions of dollars were being dispersed from local school districts for school choice. While the state was allocating federal funds from districts which failed to make AYP, they disseminated the funds on a per-pupil basis to charter schools and private schools. The more schools that a district had in “failing” school status, and the deeper in School Improvement status a school was, the more federal and state funds it received. The lower the district performed, and the higher the number of schools categorized in School Improvement Year 2 status (and beyond), the more the districts had money funneled out.

Districts found themselves applying for funds attached to competitive applications that required the school district to follow a prescriptive method of school turnaround dictated by the federal government. Sanctions were part of the prescriptive method, including school choice, supplemental tutoring, and reconstitution of staff—which meant removing the principal or turning over management to an outside provider. The funds to support the underperforming schools in the district through these prescriptive methods and sanctions were needed to make up for the loss of district dollars used to fund charter schools and private schools.

School districts or school buildings with more than 40 percent poverty schoolwide prior to NCLB (those with heterogeneous student populations) would have received these dollars regardless of the academic status of the school. The NCLB sanctions prescribed federal funds to support charter schools, private school vouchers, and online schools with no brick and mortar.

Schools such as The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (an online charter school based in Columbus, OH, that was opened in 2000 and recently closed) received more than $112 million from Ohio school districts, yet it graduated fewer than 40 percent of its students. In Ohio, where schools and districts are rated by their performance index scores, 98 out of 100 of the lowest-performing school districts were charter schools.

Meeting the Goal

The goal of 100 percent of the students across the country reaching proficiency in math and reading in buildings receiving federal Title I funds was not only unrealistic, it was a shell game. When NCLB was instituted in 2001 with specific sanctions for schools failing to reach AYP, it established a system that was not only broken, but was set up for failure.

Today, 69 percent of the largest 100 school districts are made up predominantly of minority students. A large percentage of these districts are struggling financially to meet the needs of their students as a result of this NCLB funding fiasco. I am afraid the most vulnerable students will find themselves isolated and even more segregated with decreased amounts of federal or state resources available to support their needs. Federal dollars currently being sent to local school districts under ESEA funds (better known as Title I funds), already do not cover the costs associated with sustaining public school choice via charter schools.

In my opinion, the current policies and funding systems will deregulate public education and place the financial burden associated with federal sanctions on the local taxpayer. The experimental charter schools are performing far worse than the neighborhood schools the students formerly attended. School choice has actually provided an enacted value that takes from poor students and districts and provides even poorer-performing schools when those students are most in need of additional supports.

Sandy D. Womack Jr. is director of principal leadership at Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District in Ohio and a former principal of one the lowest-performing schools in Stark County—Hartford Middle School in Canton, OH.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Here is how principals can increase social capital support for their schools:

  • Establish strong connections and partnerships in your community with organizations, city government officials, institutions, and businesses to increase your social capital and your ability to support the schools in your community when executive decisions are made. For example, the HMSCC support and parent advocacy proved crucial when the board of education voted to close the school prior to reaching the Effective rating.
  • Organize community forums at your schools to showcase your students’ and staff members’ accomplishments and needs. Incorporate quarterly opportunities on your calendar that provide parents with access to government officials, colleges, universities, hospitals, businesses, and community nonprofit groups that will enrich their children’s exposure and experiences. The annual Hartford Harvest included access for students, parents, and school administrators to more than 50 vendors, organizations, colleges, social service agencies, hospitals, and businesses—each year these agencies set up booths in the halls and gymnasium to support the school.
  • Take advantage of experiences that change lives—not programs. Provide your students and staff with experiences beyond the classroom that make the curriculum relevant and real to their cultural and individual realities.