LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Later today, the Obama administration will announce details of a plan to give out billions of dollars of stimulus funds to help school districts turn around failing schools. There is a belief among many school reformers that the best way to do this is to close the schools and reopen them with an entirely new staff.
But as Beth Fertig, of member station WNYC in New York, reports, some districts are looking into less drastic alternatives.
BETH FERTIG: Principal Ted Husted knew he was facing huge challenges when he took over Public School 85 in the Bronx three years ago. The school was chronically failing. Only four out of ten of its elementary students were reading on grade level, and Husted discovered student behavior problems were so bad the kids couldn't even handle a new recess period.
Principal TED HUSTED (Public School 85, Bronx, New York): The injury rate in our clinic, in our health clinic, at lunchtime went through the roof before kids weren't used to having that space and they weren't used to getting out and just running and playing.
FERTIG: Husted hired a nonprofit group that confirmed there was a link between student behavior and achievement.
Mr. HUSTED: One child tantrumming in a kindergarten class of a second-year teacher can effectively derail instruction, not only for that day, but possibly for a whole year.
FERTIG: Greg Greicius is a senior vice president with Turnaround for Children, which specializes in helping low-performing schools. The organization's approach differs from those that start by overhauling the staff at failing school. Turnaround for Children looks at how academic issues and social and emotional factors can interrupt learning. Greicius says these problems are common in low-income neighborhoods like the Bronx.
Mr. GREG GREICIUS (Senior Vice President, Turnaround for Children): The critical issue is being able to separate out which ones really are the highest-need kids, which ones really need mental health services, which ones need support from a social service organization, which ones parents need housing, which ones need help from an immigration lawyer.
FERTIG: At P.S. 85, coaches created an intervention team and taught the school how to sort out which students needed what kind of help and how to link them to local providers. The program also worked with teachers on classroom management. The total cost was about $300,000 - a third of which was funded by the school by hiring a full-time social worker. The rest came from private and public funding.
The turnaround happened quickly: this year, 49 percent of students met state standards for reading, a 13-point gain over last year, and almost three-quarters met the standards for math.
(Soundbite of kids in hallway)
FERTIG: Second grade teacher Mario Palma(ph) sees the difference.
Mr. MARIO PALMA (Teacher): It's all amazing to see what can be done once you get all that behavior stuff out of the way.
FERTIG: Palma is in his second year of teaching. He says he's managing his classroom better with approaches he learned from Turnaround for Children.
Mr. PALMA: Maybe acknowledging someone who's distracted by bringing your body into close proximity with a student as opposed to even speaking to them, using signals to get their attention, having certain hand movements so that they know when it's time to move.
FERTIG: Turnaround for Children has had similar results in other schools. The American Institutes for Research found test scores went up and fewer students were suspended at six middle schools in the Bronx that used the program. Scores continued improving over the next three years, but one school dropped out.
The Obama administration acknowledges programs like these that work with low-performing schools can get results. But U.S. Department of Education spokesman Peter Cunningham says they can't waste time.
Mr. PETER CUNNINGHAM (Spokesman, U.S. Department of Education): Kids need a change right away when they're in a failing school - not over time, not the slow and steady improvement process. You need a real break in culture. We think it's possible to do it with the existing staff; we think it's very hard, but we've completely allowed for that model.
FERTIG: And with as many as 5,000 schools at risk of being closed under provision of the No Child Left Behind law, Cunningham says there's just aren't enough experienced teachers and principals to overhaul every school.
Turnaround for Children is planning to expand its efforts inside and outside New York City. Meanwhile, a research group called Mass Insight is planning to work with partners around the country to see if these kinds of reforms could help failing schools without shutting them down.
For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.