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A year later, Duluth's compensatory education changes seen as positive

About a year ago, the Duluth School Board made changes to compensatory education funding. Now every school has some money to improve itself.

Each school generates a certain amount of compensatory education funds based on its population of students taking part in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. State statute requires the district to keep a minimum of 50 percent of what is generated at each level — elementary, middle and high school — but the rest can be shifted around.

Duluth has done so in the past to lower class sizes throughout the district.

A community group came forward saying the way these funds were being used was inequitable, and that each school should keep the funds it generates. This prompted the School Board to take up the issue last year and make a change.

School Board member Nora Sandstad introduced a resolution January 2018 allowing each school to keep a minimum of 80 percent of the compensatory education funds it generates in the 2018-2019 school year and that minimum percentage allocated will increase by 5 percent in each of the subsequent two years.

The School Board was recently provided with a breakdown of how each school decided to use its discretionary compensatory funds. Sandstad said she was glad to see a number of schools hire interventionists — a faculty members who assist students who are experiencing difficulties in the classroom, sometimes on a specific subject such as math or reading.

"I think it makes a lot of sense that most of the resources are going into staffing," Sandstad said. "There were numerous schools using funds for interventionists to really target students who are underperforming, which is exactly what the money is intended for."

She also said it was nice to see that some schools decided to use funds for social workers who can dedicate their time to help underperforming students, "which is exactly what we had hoped with the dedication of these funds."

"I think we still have work to do in terms of the site-based decision-making," Sandstad said. "The hope was to have community members, especially those with underperforming students, to participate along with staff."

Sandstad said she believes some schools have community members helping with input into what funds should be used for, but she would like to see it more consistent across the district.

When asked if in two years she would like to revisit the resolution to allow schools to keep 100 percent of the funds they generate, Sandstad said she thinks that is the intent of the law, but her term is up at the end of this year and she does not plan on running again.

Making the most of discretionary funds

Congdon Elementary School was one of the schools which hired an interventionist, and did so through the AmeriCorps program.

"We partnered with KEY Zone and we share a math intervention tutor through AmeriCorps. Why? because we had extra discretionary funds," said Congdon principal Kathi Kusch Marshall.

Congdon used roughly $20,000 of its discretionary funds to maintain their current number of 22 teachers — something that would have not been possible without the discretionary funds. The $37,000 that remained, though a small amount, made a big impact, Kusch Marshall said.

"While we don't have a ton of money, with this extra money, we've been able to provide more professional development and more focus on resources for math and reading to support our kids," Kusch Marshall said.

In the 2017-2018 school year, Congdon generated $91,628 but received $460,285 in compensatory education funds. All of those funds were allocated for reducing class sizes, giving Congdon no discretionary funds to use as they pleased. According to Kusch Marshall, in the eight years she has been at Congdon they have never had discretionary funds until now.

"A lot of other schools had a lot of money so they bought extra teachers, but $37,000 wasn't enough to buy an extra teacher, but it was enough to really help to give more support to the teachers we do have," Kusch Marshall said. "So they're able to focus more on the curriculum."

One teacher costs about $100,000 per year. Kusch Marshall said if they were given enough funds to pay for a teacher, the conversation about what to do with the discretionary funds would have been completely different.

"Ultimately, the goal is to have class sizes that are somewhat manageable," Kusch Marshall said. "As the keeper of the kids, the priority would be if I could have a class size of 25 instead of 35, if I would have had the money, we certainly would have talked about that as a (continuous improvement team)."

Almost all the schools that received over $100,000 in discretionary funds hired extra teachers, including Stowe Elementary School, which had $338,976 in discretionary funds and hired three teachers. This school year Congdon only generated about $82,532 — still not enough to hire a teacher even if the school were to keep all of the funds.

Over the next two years, in theory, Kusch Marshall should have more discretionary funds to work with. But she's not exactly jumping for joy, just yet.

"I'm anxiously, excitedly guarded," Kusch Marshall said.

How comp ed funds are generated

Compensatory education funds are generated based on the enrollment students at each school who receive free or reduced-price lunch. The higher percentage of these type of students a school has, the more funds it generates per student. The numbers are based on the previous school year's fall enrollment.

For example, Denfeld High School had 802 students in fall 2017 with 332 of those receiving free lunch and 94 receiving reduced-price lunch. The way funds are calculated is by adding up all of the free-lunch students and half of the reduced-price lunch students to get the adjusted count (379), and dividing that by the fall enrollment (802) to get the concentration ratio (47.26 percent), which determines the amount of money a school gets per free and reduced-price lunch student. This school year, Denfeld received $1,940.10 per student using the adjusted count.

"The compensatory formula is a sliding scale based on the concentration of poverty at that school," said Tom Melcher, finance director for the Minnesota Department of Education. "So if you have a high-poverty school, you're going to generate more money for each free and reduced-price lunch kid than a low-poverty school."

East High School had an adjusted count of 209 students with an enrollment of 1,464 students giving them a concentration ratio of 14.28 percent. That means East High School only received $586.06 per student. Stowe is receiving the most per student at $2,582.67, and Lester Park Elementary is receiving the least per student at $553.18. The scale caps out at $3,283.80 per student which requires a school to have 80 percent or more of its population receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

Adelle Whitefoot

Adelle Whitefoot is a Michigan native who moved to Minnesota in Sept. 2014 when she started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., in 2012 with a bachelor's in English writing and has been a professional photographer since 2011. Whitefoot is the night general assignments reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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