Federal grants require changes in Syracuse schools

Seven Syracuse schools are splitting $31.5 million in federal School Improvement Grants (SIG). The government identified the schools as "chronically underperforming". Major staff changes are required as schools accept the funding.

Seventh grader Uzziel Rodas isn't surprised that so many of his classmates at Frazer K-8 School in Syracuse are struggling.

"It's not the teachers or the principals. It's just the kids. Most of the kids just go there to play around and talk to their friends and slack off," Rodas said.

Uzziel's school is one of seven in Syracuse splitting $31.5 million in federal School Improvement Grants (SIG). The government identified the schools as "chronically underperforming" with "at-risk student populations". The Syracuse School District refers to the local grant recipients as "innovation zones".

Westside Academy at Blodgett and Danforth Middle schools were placed in the "transformational model", meaning they could be required to replace the principal in order to receive the grant money.

Porter, Van Duyn, and Bellevue Elementary schools, along with Frazer K-8 School and Seymour Dual Language Academy are facing bigger changes in the "turnaround model".

"Teachers are not losing their job as a result of the innovation zone, but they may likely be in other places next year, because we're only allowed to keep 50 percent of the staff in the current turnaround schools," explained Syracuse School District Chief Academic Officer Laura Kelley.

The goal of the program is to better prepare kids for college and a career. The latest data shows a 53 percent graduation rate in Syracuse. The seven "priority" schools chosen for funding were among the lowest achieving 5 percent of schools in New York State.

Sukhreet Bibbs just moved closer to Van Duyn Elementary School. Her son will likely begin attending classes there in the near future.

"In Pre-K and what-not they're starting to talk about college now, which is a good thing," Bibbs said. "With the right change, I think it will be awesome for the kids and graduating rates too."

Coaches will work with staff throughout the district. Teachers who want to stay in the targeted schools will have to reapply. They'll be paid an extra $6,000 to cover more planning and training time.

"Each of these seven schools will have an additional hour of instructional time for students every day. There is also an additional equivalent of a half-hour of common planning time and preparation time for teachers," Kelley explained.

Others will be forced to transfer elsewhere within the district. Teachers have until April 11th to opt-in or opt-out of the "innovation zones". Uzziel hopes his favorite instructors make the cut.

"Some of the teachers there inspire me to do most of my work that I didn't do before," said Rodas. "So, it is messed up { if } I have to see a teacher go away that inspired me."

The federal government awarded $81 million to New York State in the latest round of School Improvement Grants. Syracuse was given the highest amount with $31.5 million. The balance will be split among school districts in Buffalo, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Troy, and Yonkers.

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