UPDATE: Missouri gets $54 million to fix struggling schools

Monday, April 12, 2010 | 6:57 p.m. CDT; updated 7:47 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 12, 2010

KANSAS CITY — Federal officials announced Monday that Missouri will receive a $54 million federal grant to turn around its most persistently low-performing schools by taking drastic action such as replacing principals and closing schools.

Districts will apply to the state for the money, and amounts ranging from $50,000 to $2 million per building will be distributed over three years. The first installment will be available before the start of the upcoming school year.

First priority will be given to 52 struggling schools — mostly concentrated in Kansas City and St. Louis.

The U.S. Department of Education said districts must choose one of four options: closing the school and transferring students to higher-achieving schools; replacing the principal and rehiring no more than half the teachers; converting a school or closing it and reopening it as a charter school under an education management organization; or replacing the principal and improving the school through comprehensive reforms.

Kansas City appears particularly well-situated to qualify for the money after its board approved an aggressive plan last month to close nearly half its schools to erase a projected $50 million budget shortfall. Under the plan, teachers at six other low-performing schools will be required to reapply for their jobs.

"There is no question that Kansas City should be able to take advantage of this program," said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

St. Louis, like Kansas City, is in a tough financial situation. District spokesman Patrick Wallace said the superintendent has indicated everything is being considered, including closures, to stem a shortfall of just below $58 million. The superintendent plans to announce his budget-balancing plan Thursday.

While the grants reward districts for closing schools for performance issues, it's also possible budget-necessitated closures could allow districts to qualify for the money as long as the schools shuttered were faltering.

The grant Missouri is receiving is part of the $3.5 billion that will be made available to states this spring. The money comes from stimulus funds.

"When a school continues to perform in the bottom 5 percent of the state and isn't showing signs of growth or has graduation rates below 60 percent, something dramatic needs to be done," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a news release. "Turning around our worst performing schools is difficult for everyone, but it is critical that we show the courage to do the right thing by kids."

More than two-thirds of the 52 high-priority schools are in the St. Louis area — 21 of them in the St. Louis school district and 12 in surrounding districts, according to the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Four publicly-funded charter schools in St. Louis and four in Kansas City are also eligible.

The Kansas City district has six schools on the list; two others are in the neighboring Hickman Mills district.

Just three eligible schools aren't in or near the state's two largest cities. One is located in St. Joseph, and two others are in Missouri's Bootheel.

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