ST. LOUIS — In the fall of 2010, before Riverview Gardens Central Middle School could benefit from a surge of federal money intended to help turn around the foundering school, it was assigned a new principal. Before long, that interim hire left — as did the next one.
More than three months into the school year, the district tapped an educator with staying power — longtime district teacher and former administrator Michael Wallace.
"You're on continuously, the challenges are monumental and it's daily," Wallace said, describing his role as principal. "It takes a unique skill set. If you don't have the right skill set and the right team behind you, I could see easily how that could overwhelm a person."
Wallace's post isn't your average principal's job — nor are those at 30 other schools in Missouri chosen to participate in a multibillion dollar federal experiment to see whether it's possible to turn around the country's worst schools in three years.
To wit, since 2010, the first year the school-improvement grants were distributed to schools in Missouri, about a dozen principals who signed on to lead schools during the attempted turnarounds have left, according to a grant coordinator. Some retired or left for other jobs, while others left simply when it became clear that they weren't good fits for such an intense challenge, education officials said.
"This is not your typical initiative," said Robert Taylor, a former school superintendent who is now a state coordinator for Missouri's school-improvement grants. "Sometimes you don't know until you're well into the year that you've got the wrong people on the bus, in the wrong seat, or you need to change seats."
This isn't just school improvement, Taylor said. "This is school turnaround."
U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said sometimes it takes two or three tries before a struggling school lands on the right principal.
"This work is not for everybody," said Duncan, who was in St. Louis on Monday to highlight reform efforts at Vashon High School, one of 11 St. Louis Public Schools receiving federal school-improvement grant money. "You could be an amazing principal at another place and really struggle in this context. It takes a certain tenacity, a certain resiliency, and getting the right fit is really important. ... The right leadership is by far the most important piece."
While St. Louis schools are the beneficiaries of more school-improvement grant — or SIG — dollars than any district in the state, schools in the Riverview Gardens, Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings and Normandy districts also are grant recipients.
In all, Missouri schools received $17.3 million in 2010-11 and $15.7 million in 2011-12, and expect to receive $15.9 million in 2012-13, not including more than $14.7 million expected to be disbursed over three years to 11 schools recently added to the program.
Among those 11 schools added by the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, which is authorized to distribute the federal grants to schools identified as the persistently lowest-achieving schools, are Hazelwood East High School, Hazelwood Central Middle School and Hazelwood Southeast Middle School. The trio expect to receive an estimated total of $1.2 million in SIG funds in the coming school year and a total of $2.64 million over the next three school years.
Hazelwood East Middle School, which with a $1.7 million award in 2010 received the largest amount given to a single Missouri school over the course of the SIG program, soon will begin its third year in the program, with a $1.67 million award. The school also received $1.67 million in the second year of the program.
East St. Louis High School learned last week that it is to receive $6 million in SIG money over the next three years, though its previous applications for the grants were rejected.
Meanwhile, one of the original SIG recipients in Missouri is closing. Kansas City's Urban Community Leadership Academy, a charter school, got $966,394 in SIG funds in 2010-11 and an additional $754,917 in 2011-12. The University of Central Missouri did not renew the school's charter for the coming school year, disqualifying the school from a third year of grant money.
Never has the federal government spent so much so quickly on so few schools. But the idea has been to effect monumental change in the nation's worst schools and to do so in a way that the improvements would continue and even spread — not dissipate along with the dollars.
To compete for the grants, schools had to employ one of four school-reform models identified by the U.S. Department of Education. They could replace at least half the teaching staff, change principals, reopen as a charter school or close. In the St. Louis area, applicants opted to either replace teachers or principals, or both.
Consequently, most of the dozen or so schools that lost principals in the first or second years of the SIG program had already begun the grant program with new principals.
Wallace stepped in at Central Middle School after two interim principals left. At the high school, a man hired as principal shortly before the 2010-11 school year began left at the end of that school year.
"Just through the challenge and the pace and all that turnaround requires, he elected to exercise some other options at the end of his term," said Tamara Sunkett, Riverview Gardens' executive director for school accountability.
Officials say principals in the St. Louis, Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings and Normandy districts and at the Construction Careers Center also have left since the launch of the SIG program.
"The principal finds himself in a very different role than I think a typical principal in a typical district would be," said Sunkett, a former principal herself. "They are the primary driving force in that building for instructional practices, for student achievement and for school turnaround."
Riverview Gardens Superintendent Clive Coleman said, "This is a very challenging position. It's not something that you can come in as a leader and learn on the job. It requires a level of skills that you must have before and then expand on those skill sets."
St. Louis Public Schools participating in the SIG program had three principal changes after the first year of the program but none after the second year, according to the district.
Derrick Mitchell, principal at Vashon, has been on the job since the program started. A 1987 Vashon graduate and a parent of two sons who attend the school, Mitchell said his role in the school's turnaround is personal.
But it goes beyond that, he said. It requires being a "totally outside-of-the-box thinker" and a believer that education isn't one-size-fits-all – meaning he has to ensure that the school's educational programs cater to the needs of each individual student.
As the principal at a SIG school, Mitchell said he not only has to be a good manager but also extremely cognizant of how students are instructed. Beyond that, he is part of a team that is deeply involved with a group of students at risk of failing.
"We just delve in as far as we can go with them, to see what's going on personally, academically, socially," he said, describing a charge all of the SIG schools are expected to undertake. "It's, in essence, taking the whole child and looking at him or her in such a way so we can try to change the thinking and employ different strategies or interventions to try to move that kid forward academically."
As schools enter the third year of the SIG program, State Coordinators Taylor and Dennis Dorsey continue to pay frequent visits to the schools, during which they act as "critical friends" to the administrators and "create a little bit of tension," Taylor said.
They ask about instruction, the at-risk kids, efforts to improve vocabulary skills for students — anything that might affect a school's turnaround.
"We want them to be successful," Taylor said.
To help along those lines, Taylor said, nearly all of the principals have been assigned coaches, almost all of whom are former successful administrators. The role of those coaches has increased in importance for SIG schools this year.
Coleman, of Riverview Gardens, stressed that the SIG program is about overall reform. "You must be able to adapt to change and reform, and sometimes it creates a lot of anxiety because the pressure is on, there's no doubt," he said. "We must improve, and there is no excuse or exceptions. ... The ultimate bottom line is that improvement."