When a tiny charter school in San Diego got a massive federal grant that more than doubled its annual budget, skeptics said it was a classic example of how California bungles giving out money to turn around faltering schools.

Testing expert Doug McRae argued that California deserved a “Golden Fleece Award” for giving King-Chavez Arts Academy so much more money per pupil than other schools. Stephen Rhoads, a lobbyist who works with school districts, called it “way out of line.”

“It’s really questionable that those funds are going to be spent well,” Rhoads told me last fall.

Now the Arts Academy can point to big gains on state tests in the first year of the grant. The small school in the Stockton neighborhood had a massive jump in math scores and respectable growth in English and science.

State scores released last week show that 74.5 percent of students met state standards in math, compared to 54 percent last year and 31.1 percent the year before that. English scores rose from 33.1 percent to 37.6 percent; science grew from 26.7 percent to 33.3 percent.

King-Chavez CEO Tim Wolf credited mentoring for teachers and principals, tutoring and paying closer attention to testing data indicating where students needed help. (Check out our earlier story about how the tiny charter school is spending its windfall.) He wasn’t sure why math grew so much more than English or science.

The money is part of a federal push to turn around the lowest performing schools in the country. Last year California came up with a list of persistently failing schools. Schools could apply for federal money to turn themselves around, choosing from a menu of options laid out by the Obama administration.

The Arts Academy wasn’t the only San Diego school that got money to help itself improve: Burbank Elementary in Logan Heights got a smaller per-pupil grant this year.

When I visited earlier this year, Burbank teachers cautioned their programs hadn’t been in effect for the entire school year. Some of its plans are similar to the changes the Arts Academy rolled out, including after-school tutoring and coaches who help teachers improve lessons.

Its gains were smaller: English proficiency rates rose from 30.1 percent to 30.8 percent, math rose from 38.7 percent to 41.6 percent, and science dropped a little from 30.6 percent to 27.8 percent.

Test scores aren’t the only measure of a school.

And this is just the change after a single school year; school reform normally takes a lot longer to show results. But the scores are one sign that we’ll be following as these two schools continue their quest to improve.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

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

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