Obama unveils ‘turnaround’ grants for schools


Calling it crucial to U.S. global competitiveness, President Obama pledged Monday to fight the dropout rate among U.S. high school students and to improve low-performing schools through new investments in “turnaround” programs.

Obama proposed $900 million more next year in grants for school systems that commit to improving their struggling schools -- much of it likely bound for districts in large cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles.

Obama directed $3 billion of last year’s stimulus package to improve school performance. The president’s latest spending plan must be approved by Congress.

In an address to a coalition of education advocates at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama said he wants states to transform the poorest schools with “last resort” strategies that could necessitate dismissing principals and staff and closing some campuses.

“Not long ago, you could drop out of high school and reasonably expect to find a blue-collar job that would pay the bills and help support your family. That’s just not the case anymore,” Obama said. “Graduating from high school is an economic imperative.”

To receive the Obama administration’s turnaround grants for their districts, state officials must draft a set of criteria to determine their lowest-performing schools. To be eligible, a school must either have state test scores in the bottom 5% or high school graduation rates below 60%.

Once the Department of Education has approved the criteria, schools may compete for the money against other schools in their state. Winners will be chosen by officials in each state based on the strength of the plan.

Although administration officials don’t know which schools will get the money, they said many of those targeted are inner-city schools.

School districts can qualify for a share of the grant money by taking steps to reform instructional strategies and improve teacher effectiveness, in part by extending planning time for educators.

The more dramatic options include a “turnaround” model, which requires replacing a principal and half the school staff and setting up a new structure of school governance and instructional program.

Another “restart” model calls for closing a school and reopening under charter management, while the “closure” model requires sending students to better schools in the district.

There are about 25,000 public high schools in America, but fewer than one-tenth of them -- about 2,000 -- produce half the dropouts, according to administration officials.

Obama discussed the plan in a speech to the America’s Promise Alliance, founded in 1997 by retired Army Gen. Colin Powell and currently chaired by his wife, Alma J. Powell. The group is a partnership made up of corporations, nonprofit and faith-based organizations and education advocates.

In addition to the turnaround grants, the Obama administration is setting aside $50 million targeted to support dropout prevention strategies.