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District has to share its Title I cash

• By law, private schools get portion of federal funds for poor kids
by: jIM CLARK, Portland school board members David Wynde and Bobbie Regan, along with Ruth Adkins, were surprised to find out that a portion of district Title I funds are sent to private schools.

Just over half of the schools in the Portland school district share a pot of about $10 million in federal Title I money each year to help meet the needs of their poorest students.

The grant funds, which average around $200,000 to $300,000 per school, may be spent at the principal's discretion and typically support things like full-day kindergarten, additional teachers' aides, professional development and upgrades in technology.

But the federal money doesn't just benefit public schools. As mandated by President Bush's 2001 No Child Left Behind law, school districts must administer Title I money to all schools within their boundaries - even private schools - to help with the cost of educating their poor students.

In Portland next fall, a total of $648,000 is slated to go to 885 students at 31 private schools. Some schools, like Trinity Lutheran in Northeast, get a small sum of $2,205, which goes to teacher training or part-time teachers to assist three students.

Holy Cross School in St. Johns receives larger grants of $125,720 to assist 172 of its eligible students.

Board members didn't know

All but five of the 31 private schools in the district will receive a portion of Title I funds next year.

That was a startling revelation last week to Portland school board members, who learned of this phenomenon during a presentation on how the district's Title I funds are spent.

'I'm stunned,' said board member Bobbie Regan. 'I just need to sit with this information for a while.' Even though the board hadn't been explicitly aware, private schools have been receiving Title I money since at least the mid-1990s, said Susan Kosmala, the district's Title I director.

'It's a high-maintenance piece,' Kosmala said. 'It costs a lot. But on top of that, it's the administration piece, sending $600,000 all over the city. It's very labor-intensive. They need a lot of hand-holding, don't understand federal policy, don't understand district procedures. But it's not something we shoot flares over. It's just part of something we have to do.'

Particularly shocking, Regan and fellow board members David Wynde and Ruth Adkins said, is the difference in the way the grant money is allocated to private schools and public schools.

Portland's public elementary and middle schools receive Title I money if 40 percent or more of their students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, the widely used indicator of poverty in schools. That threshold may change to 43 percent next year. High schools in Portland must meet a threshold of 75 percent to receive any funds.

But for private schools, no matter what grade level, there is no threshold.

If a single student at a private school qualifies for the free or reduced-price lunch program, the school district must administer its portion of Title I dollars. Typically, the funds go to pay for additional teacher training or lessons that benefit those eligible students, Kosmala said.

'Our children deserve it, too'

At North Portland's Holy Redeemer School, Principal Anna Raineri said she'll spend her school's $81,000 in Title I money to pay for two half-time teachers to assist its 111 students in reading and math. 'Our children deserve it, too,' she said. 'Any child who needs extra help ought to be able to get it.'

For each student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch at the elementary level, a school receives $725. At the middle school level, it's $652. And for high schools and any school designated as 'high poverty' (having 75 percent or more of their students qualify for free or reduced meals), the allotment is $735 per child.

Wynde said the apparent double standard in distributing the funds is disturbing. A poor student at Woodstock Elementary, Madison High School or any other of the 40 Portland public schools that do not meet the threshold do not reap the benefits of Title I dollars.

But a single poor student at any private school does.

'This is one way No Child Left Behind is working, then,' Wynde said in disbelief. 'Poor kids in private schools are not left behind, but poor kids in public schools are left behind. It's an anomaly. … It's stacking the deck.'

Many school principals also hadn't known that private schools receive Title I funds.

'Excuse me?' said Cynthia Macleod, principal at Northeast Portland's Irvington School, which will lose its Title I status after next year.

'I know that there are a number of kids in the district who don't qualify for Title I but have kids in need. And they have enough to impact our programs, to need additional support. In our school 25 kids can make a big difference, could keep you from making progress toward your benchmarks.'

Irvington, along with Beaumont Middle School, also in Northeast, will lose its Title I status in 2009 because its share of kids qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch has dropped to 38 percent, just below the threshold.

At Irvington, the change comes as it adds sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, accepting more students from the surrounding affluent neighborhood with less room for transfer students from poorer areas.

The district will extend the Title I funding at both schools for another year to give them time to plan, but Macleod is dreading the loss of about $150,000 each year, which has gone to support a teachers' literacy coach, a reading specialist, an educational assistant in the library and free full-day kindergarten.

'We'll have to cut some things to fund the positions again,' she said, and families will have to pay the district's fee for full-day kindergarten.

'It's going to be very hard. … We're just going to do the best we can for the kids, whether we have the money or not,' Macleod added.

Benchmarks, then sanctions

The public schools must all accept the Title I money, Kosmala said, despite the infamous sanctions that come along with No Child Left Behind. Schools that receive Title I money must meet federal 'adequate yearly progress' benchmarks each year.

If the schools don't meet the benchmarks, they face increasing sanctions that involve offering students the chance to get a priority transfer out of the school with paid transportation, free tutoring for eligible students (paid by Title I), the implementation of a school improvement plan and, finally, restructuring the school in the sixth year of not meeting the increasing benchmarks.

'It's brutal,' Kosmala said. 'It's absolutely brutal. Unless you're making miracles, you move forward' into further sanctions.

While Irvington and Beaumont soon will lose their Title I status, two schools are gaining it. The Pauling Academy of Integrated Science and the Renaissance Arts Academy, both small schools at the Marshall Campus, will receive Title I funds next fall, while the third academy, BizTech, already has Title I status.

'It's very good news,' said Stevie Newcomer, principal at Pauling. 'We'll give them extra help, hopefully bring their scores up.' Newcomer said the change in status came from more kids returning their free and reduced-price lunch forms in order to meet the 75 percent threshold - no small feat for high school students.

That was a problem at Jefferson High School this year, which came in at 74.9 percent, just under the threshold. Kosmala said the school - which receives $377,000 per year, the most Title I funds at the high school level - likely will meet the threshold again next year, so the district will bridge its funding in the meantime.

'Fifteen years ago, the idea was that Jefferson was the highest poverty cluster,' she said. 'Now the highest is Roosevelt, the second is Marshall. Jefferson's third. There's so many factors - increasing population, fewer families accessing neighborhood schools … anything's possible.'

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