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Only about 1 in 5 school districts with the neediest and lowest-performing schools in the state applied for a federal grant that could have given these schools a financial boost.

The grants, called School Improvement Grants, are awarded to individual schools that qualify and show the strongest commitment to using the funds to improve instruction and help struggling students academically.

To be eligible, schools must be in the lowest achieving 5 percent of schools receiving Title I funds. Title I funds are federal dollars that go toward school districts with high numbers of children from low-income families.

Mississippi received $16 million worth of School Improvement Grants. Last week, the State Board of Education approved around $11 million in federal grants to eight schools in five districts, leaving a remaining $5 million that must be appropriated or the state could lose the money.

State officials expressed disappointment. Despite the fact 113 school districts met the qualifications to apply, only 21 submitted applications, Mississippi Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Kim Benton told the State Board of Education this month.

“I’m appalled that we have so many school districts that need the help that don’t apply,” State Board of Education member John Kelly said. He asked MDE staff whether there was something additional the state could have done to reach those school districts.

Benton said her team was aggressive in efforts to reach school districts’ superintendents and federal programs directors. Those efforts included personal phone calls to the 50 eligible school districts that did not submit a letter of intent to apply, face-to-face and electronic training and webinars, and reminder emails as deadlines approached, Benton said.

In addition, Benton made previous grant recipients’ applications available online. The grants are distributed for three- and four-year periods.

While there are several types of school improvement grants, eight Mississippi schools will receive the funds under the “transformation model” in which funds are used to develop teacher and leader effectiveness, develop comprehensive instructional programs using student achievement data, extend learning time and create community-oriented schools, and provide operating flexibility and intensive support.

Schools will get another chance to apply for the remaining $5 million given to the state.

“Anyone that was not awarded under this piece, any of the eligible 113 schools can reapply for the additional $5 million,” Benton said. “We hope to get that application out very quickly … so as not to lose the remaining funds.”

‘Not sure what happened with that’

Several districts Mississippi Today contacted said that although they did not apply for the competitive School Improvement Grant, they did seek funds from another pot of federal money.

LaToshia Stamps, director of federal programs for Canton Public School District, said the district applied for a noncompetitive federal grant of $36,000 per year per school for Canton Public High School, Huey L. Porter Middle School and Nichols Middle School. All are rated F by the Mississippi Department of Education.

“I’m not sure what happened with that,” Stamps said when asked about the competitive School Improvement Grant. She referred further questions to another administrator who was not available Monday.

With noncompetitive federal grants, schools that are eligible and apply automatically receive the funding. With the competitive School Improvement Grant, however, school districts must be evaluated and selected by the state based on their plans for using the funds along with an interview process.

Marcia Cummings, assistant superintendent for Montgomery County School District, said her district did not apply for the grant for Montgomery County High School, also an F-rated school.

“We just at the present time did not feel that that was something we needed to do,” she said. “We have received several other federal grants.”

No sense of urgency

Of the 21 school districts that applied for School Improvement Grants, seven of them were rejected at some stage in the process because of errors in their application such as omitting a signature from the superintendent, not getting the approval of the school board, missing the deadline or the district submitting an application for the wrong school. Of the remaining 14, five districts with eight eligible schools were chosen to receive the grant.

Jackson Public School District submitted an  application for three of its schools but missed the May 8 deadline.

Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray told the JPS school board at a June 20 meeting that the district missed the 3 p.m. deadline. The application was for Callaway High School, Forest Hill High School and Siwell Middle School.

“The grant was submitted the day of, but it was tardy,” Murray said. “We found out there was a cut-off at 3 o’clock. It was received after that, so the grant was of course excluded because of that.”

JPS board member Rickey Jones noted the district has several schools in “dire” need of support, especially if the grant was free.

For months, JPS officials and employees have worked on a corrective action plan launched in response to an investigative audit by the Mississippi Department of Education. The 2016 audit found Jackson Public Schools in violation of 22 of the 32 state accreditation benchmarks, which include issues with teacher certification, school safety and other violations.

Although the district used a contractor to complete the applications, several employees staff the district’s federal programs department and they put stakeholders at a disadvantage because of their mistake, Jones said.

“You and your staff, to me and my mind, just put these students, you put these teachers, you put these parents, you put these communities … what are they going to do?”Jones said to Murray. “One of the key things that will come out is we do not operate with a sense of urgency.”

In the wake of the audits that resulted in a probationary status for the district’s accreditation, state officials have noted the district’s lack of a “sense of urgency.”

Jones said the main concern now is what the students and teachers are going to do without those grant funds, “when we find ourselves in a situation where we need all the support and all the free money we can get.”

JPS spokesperson Sherwin Johnson blamed the contractor working with the district for the late application.

“Although it is the district’s responsibility to submit the grant, in this instance, the grant contractor made some late changes to the grant that led to the district missing the required deadline,” Johnson said. “This was not a mandated requirement but an opportunity offered by the Mississippi Department of Education to school districts across the state.”

Johnson said JPS used Tri-K Group to complete the grant and will “continue to collaborate with the contractor to secure grants being prepared for submission in October to ensure quality proposals are being submitted.”

State records list Karla McCullough as Tri-K Group’s owner; a call to the company was not immediately returned Monday.

At the board meeting, Murray took responsibility for the error and reminded the board the district will reapply for remaining funds during the next application cycle.

In the Pascagoula Gautier School District, officials did not apply for a competitive school improvement grant because the eligible school, Arlington Heights Elementary, was already assured an automatic grant, federal programs director Frank Catchings said.

Catchings said the district has made use of school improvement grants in years past, and the extra funds were helpful.

“Any additional funding that we can use to target a specific program that we can implement at the school to help improve student achievement, we are always grateful for that funding,” he said.

Pending local school board and Mississippi Department of Education approval, the current grant will likely be used to hire tutors for low-achieving students to help close the learning gap, he said.

Eight schools to receive School Improvement Grants:
• Pearman Elementary in Cleveland School District, $2.12 million
• Threadgill Elementary in Greenwood Public School District, $1.51 million
• Greenwood Middle in Greenwood Public School District, $1.57 million
• Greenwood High in Greenwood Public School District, $1.5 million
• North Panola Junior High in North Panola Consolidated School District, $916,500
• Quitman County Elementary in Quitman County School District, $1.19 million
• Quitman County Middle in Quitman County School District, $1.19 million
• Bettie E. Woolfolk Middle in Yazoo City Municipal School District, $1.86 million

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

One reply on “Struggling schools fail to apply for millions in federal grants”

  1. Eye-opening story. Now that Mississippi Today has our attention, please consider a follow-up piece on how school districts select, pay and evaluate grant contractors.

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