Third-graders Alexis Segovia and Keiy’ana Cook like fiction, especially stories about Meli, a dog character featured in a series of books they read at West Handley Elementary in east Fort Worth.
When the two 8-year-olds started working with tutor Susan Titus last year they weren’t reading at grade level, but they made huge gains after participating in 30-minute sessions four times a week.
Titus beamed as she described their accomplishment.
“Honestly, it almost brings me to tears,” she said. “I have a passion for this community and these kids.”
The money that pays for the tutoring program at West Handley comes from Title I, Part A, a federal program that provides funding to schools serving economically disadvantaged students nationwide. School leaders say these dollars are critical because they boost teachers working with students who face immense barriers to learning — from hunger to poverty to broken families.
But this school year, because of changes in federal laws, some school districts have seen their allocations drop, forcing administrators to make tough decisions about what programs to keep — and which ones to let go.
Tarrant County school districts lost almost $7 million when compared with last year.
Arlington schools saw a decrease of $3.3 million.
Fort Worth schools saw a drop of $2.3 million.
“These are the dollars we use to support children who meet criteria for socioeconomic disadvantaged status,” said James Schiele, chief financial officer for Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools, which lost more than $50,000 compared with the previous school year.
“They are the group that is most at-risk for failure in schools. Failure to provide additional resources to support at-risk kids will have a dramatic negative impact on these children’s lives and the country as a whole,” Schiele said.
At West Handley Elementary, where 90 percent of the students participate in the free and reduced lunch program, keeping reading tutors such as Titus meant the school sacrificed another program. The school lost $20,000 in Title I, Part A funding and decided to cut the Communities in School program, which helps find resources for struggling families and students.
“We have been able to work through it, but it is a budget game,” said Julie Moynihan, principal at West Handley. “We have to be more intentional with the money we spend on people.”
‘The new normal’
Bob Farrace, with the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Virginia, does not mince words when trying to explain school finance at the federal level, especially with the latest round of changes.
“Federal funding is complicated,” Farrace said. “It is often not particularly accessible to the lay person.”
Nationally, the Department of Education allocated about $15.4 billion in Title I, Part A funding, which is up from about $14.9 billion in 2016.
In past years the doling out of Title I, Part A dollars has been a somewhat fluid process, based on such factors as enrollment numbers and poverty levels.
Those factors are still key parts of the funding formula, but as states transition from federal No Child Left Behind laws to the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, more federal dollars are now allocated to campuses that are trying to sustain success after being low performers. Last year the Texas Education Agency set aside 5 percent of Title I money for sustaining low-performing schools; this year the number is 7 percent (about $99 million), officials said.
So while the amount of Title I money sent to Texas actually increased, from about $1.37 billion to $1.4 billion, some schools had their amounts reduced, according to the TEA.
“ESSA law changed, so we had to make the required statutory adjustments,” the TEA said in an email. “The state does not determine the formulas for allocating funds to school districts.”
The formulas are determined by the federal government.
The problem is not unique to Texas, said Carlas McCauley, Director of the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd, a California nonprofit focused on improving schools.
“The shock is that for most (schools) this will be the first year you have received less,” McCauley said, explaining that in some cases “that will be the new normal” as the reserved funding is supposed to help struggling schools.
‘Always worried about money’
In the Fort Worth school district, there are 124 campuses that receive Title I, Part A dollars this year. Besides reading tutors, who play a key role as the district tries to improve its reading levels, principals were forced to unload data specialists, other tutors and support programs such as Communities In Schools which supports at-risk students.
Mirgitt Crespo, the Fort Worth school district’s federal programs director, said that about $1.5 million in leftover funding from last year will be used to make up for this year’s shortfall. Other districts said some of these federal dollars increase during the year.
But, Crespo said, “it’s not going to solve the problem.”
How much schools get can change from year to year, she said.
Crespo said that as Fort Worth grows, more people with money are moving into the district. That results in a reduction in Title I funding because Title I dollars are supposed to help lift low-income students. All students who live within the Fort Worth district’s boundaries are counted in the funding formula, even if they attend private, public charter or home schools.
“The people who are coming into the area are not poor,” Crespo said. “But we still have poor people.”
While most Fort Worth schools lost Title I funding, a handful of the district’s campuses saw increases in funding, creating a situation described by some as “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Schools with high levels of poverty end up vying against each other for the same dollars.
A similar dynamic is taking place at the federal level, said some Title I experts, because the federal government is asking Texas to use more of the Title I, Part A dollars to support struggling schools — thereby taking resources away from campuses that serve those other at-risk students.
For example, at Wyatt High School, where the percentage of students living in poverty increased from 74 to 94 percent, Title I, Part A funding increased to $321,300 — up from $281,590.
In comparison, Dunbar High School, a few miles away, received a smaller campus award, to $179,010 — down $14,740.
“We are always worried about money. We are always worried about the unknown,” said Regina Williams, the coordinator of Dunbar High School’s Title I Priority Schools Grant.
The Priority Schools Grant is funded by the 7 percent pot set aside for supporting previously low-performing schools, which must apply for the money.
Williams said both Title I funding sources are crucial to Dunbar’s academic performance. During the 2013-2014 school year, Dunbar was listed as needing improvement by the state. But it has met the state standard the last three years and last year excelled in math.
“We need our kids to continue to grow,” Williams said. “We need for our federal government to hang with us.”
‘A light bulb goes off’
The Title I, Part A money supplements teachers’ efforts with tutors and specialists who help enable students to bridge gaps in reading, math and bilingual education.
The funding also helps engage parents and family members — which is a must for student success, said Alexandra Montes, principal at Western Hills Elementary. That west Fort Worth campus has 100 percent of its students on the free and reduced lunch program, she said.
Montes said Title I funds recently helped pay for a “Pastries for Grandparents” morning event that included expert help on how to use car booster seats. About 250 people attended the informational session that also served to connect with families, she said.
“The grandparents are the ones who are raising all these babies,” Montes said.
This year, the school started with $20,000 less in Title I, Part A funding, Montes said.
She said she cut a computer lab assistant’s position.
At nearby Western Hills Primary, Teresa Chaney said she lost her tutoring job after working at the school for eight years.
She said it’s very important that the students at the school in the Las Vegas Trail area receive extra support.
Western Hills Primary Principal Sonya Kelly told the Star-Telegram recently that the funding decrease meant she had to cut two temporary tutor positions for reading. The two tutors assisted between 30 and 40 children a week. Kelly said she hoped they could find a way to meet this need.
“We get first-graders who still don’t know letters and sounds,” Chaney said. “We have to move them up about nine levels so they are ready to go to second grade.
“When they discover they can read, a light bulb goes off,” Chaney said. “They just soar.”
Star-Telegram writers Sandra Engelland and Alice Murray contributed to this report.