Walk into this tiny charter school and you might have to pinch yourself. While other San Diego schools trim the school year to save money, needy kids here soak up a dozen extra hours of instruction a week.

While other schools sack employees, this school in San Diego’s Stockton neighborhood has gone on a hiring spree and has new training and big bonuses to offer its staff. And it plans to buy paints and kilns, revamp its theater and hand laptops to teachers.

The federal government is pouring $4 million into King-Chavez Arts Academy over three years, more than double its annual budget. It’s a push to reform the very lowest performing schools, a label that the Arts Academy believes it never should have gotten in the first place.

But as budget cuts force other schools to gut programs, this small school is actually lucky to have been dubbed a failure. The big windfall has made this school a rare investment in school reform.

“I’ve never seen investment on this scale,” said Douglas Harrell, chief academic officer of the King-Chavez charter schools. “We would have prayed for this.”

Last year, the Obama administration launched a national program to invest heavily in major reforms — dubbed “turnarounds” — in the lowest 5 percent of schools across the country. The Arts Academy is one of just four schools in San Diego County that got funding to change their fates and up their test scores.

Like all turnaround schools, it will test the theory behind the Obama push: Can radical changes and a temporary spurt of spending turn a struggling school around? Which reforms will work and which won’t?

But the Arts Academy also raises unique questions of its own. The school has become a flashpoint in the debate over how California handled the federal money, from how it decided which schools were failing to how it divvied up the cash. And that will make its quest all the more closely watched.

California was supposed to target the lowest 5 percent of schools for turnarounds. But state officials skipped any school that had made even modest improvement, which then dumped other schools with higher scores onto the list. In San Diego, King-Chavez leaders argued the Arts Academy should have been compared to the lower performing public school it once replaced. It wasn’t.

The Arts Academy had already made almost all the fixes the federal government prescribed for turnarounds. The schools could become charters; it is one. They could replace their staff; it replaced its principal and most of its teachers two and a half years ago. They could shut down; it refused.

So instead, the charter school made a bid for federal money for a different, gentler kind of turnaround. It chose the fourth option for failing schools: Altering and adding to instruction. Back when the Arts Academy let most of its teachers go, many complained they had too little guidance and were cut off without a chance to improve.

Now new teachers like Paul Hobson will get help in spades. The school budgeted more than $54,000 in stipends for seasoned teachers to mentor newer ones, $300,000 for bonuses for staff who excel, $120,000 for an instructional coach and more money for trainings. Hobson, the third grade teacher, has a veteran teacher who helps him track how students are doing.

Even Principal Scott Worthing has a mentor — the academics chief Harrell. “We meet daily. We walk and talk,” said Worthing, a former coach who was promoted three years ago. “I’ve got him on speed dial.”

The school also dramatically lengthened the day for struggling kids, giving them an extra dose of reading or math. A newly hired brigade of tutors teams up with teachers to reteach skills that students fell short on after class and on Saturdays. Extra time to learn is widely seen as a good investment for poor kids, who get less exposure to academic language at home and often slip behind during breaks.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, fourth graders used their arms to show their teacher what obtuse, acute and straight angles looked like. Then they rotated from that class to another, hunkering down with laptops that quiz them and reward them with animated games for each correct answer. The kids get extra practice — and the computers feed information to teachers about how they’re doing.

King-Chavez plans to spend more than $300,000 on technology, including laptops for that after school lab. The arts will get a booster shot too, with nearly $500,000 invested in musical instruments, art supplies, teacher training, even paying two artists who work with students, like Ramon “El Chunky” Sanchez, who leads kids in civil rights and protest songs like “No Nos Moveran” once a week.

But while the Arts Academy epitomizes the promise of the federal push, its big grant has also been tagged as an example of how the state mismanaged it. Critics complained that giving one school over $7,700 per student annually — more than any other California school according to one analysis — was an outrageous symptom of a bigger problem: that some schools got much more than others.

The Arts Academy has fewer than 200 students, all poor enough to get free or reduced price lunches. But it got the same grant as nearby Burbank Elementary, which is more than twice as big. Critics faulted California for not limiting the grants more by school size; it said it had no choice.

While California was supposed to target the very worst schools, it ended up including some schools far from the bottom. And the state afforded schools very little time to draft plans and apply: King-Chavez CEO Tim Wolf said they rushed through an application in six weeks that would normally take six months.

For instance, Wolf says they now regret devoting so much money to staff bonuses in their application. But now that California has approved the plan they hurried to make, the school says it can’t move much of the money. So it is stuck paying bonuses it would rather spend on something else.

“All these changes are very difficult,” said Rob Manwaring, a consultant who studies turnarounds. By rushing the process, “California may have sacrificed some of the possibility of this being effective.”

Still, those frustrations are just a footnote for the Arts Academy. While the school reviled the “low performing” label, it readily admits it has a long way to go and welcomes the help. Its scores surged last year. That still meant only one-third of its students met state standards on English tests.

To prevent the reforms from being an all-too-temporary blessing, the school is planning to pair teachers with unpaid teachers-in-training to work staggered shifts to extend the school day for less money. And it wants to make its mentoring program so good that teachers from elsewhere will pay to get in.

As Principal Worthing headed to a classroom to see a tutor review cubes with eager kids, Harrell at his side, Worthing was wowed that their school could offer more chances to students, even as California cuts back.

“We’re making children who have been underperforming forever successful for the first time,” Harrell said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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