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Rockford schools lose reading aid
By Carrie Watters
Rockford Register Star
Grant withdrawal tied to monitor rejection
ROCKFORD - Rockford is one of only two Illinois school districts to lose federal money earmarked for improving reading. The reason: Superintendent Dennis Thompson turned away monitors who came in February to see whether the money was being spent correctly.
The cost: At least $681,000. The grants are the federal government's way of paying for the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping law that forces districts to improve or face sanctions.
Thompson told monitors to come back after making an appointment in advance. The state, which runs the Reading First grant for the federal Department of Education, says rescheduling an investigative visit is not acceptable. The state has been under increasing pressure from the federal government to improve how it monitors the grants.
A federal monitor was among those who visited Rockford on Feb. 7. State spokeswoman Becky Watts said the federal government "strongly encouraged" a halt to Rockford's grant when access was denied.
Thompson, who got word of the grant loss last week, said Monday that the incident was an unfortunate miscommunication that doesn't matter.
"The issue with the grant is that it is so restrictive that you can only use it in so many ways," Thompson said.
Different reading program
Those ways did not jibe with his plans for the district's reading program, so he didn't plan to pursue more Reading First money for 2005-06, he said.
Still, Thompson said he has talked with the state to improve communication. He didn't like being told about the visit with one day's notice.
"Could I have done things better? Certainly," Thompson said.
Districts around the country have opted not to take the federal money because Reading First endorses and pays for just a handful of reading programs. In Wisconsin, the Madison district declined $2 million last year because the district had its own reading program and wanted to stick with it.
In Illinois, the only other district to lose the money is Pembroke - but that's because reading scores have improved so much that the district isn't eligible.
Reading First money comes in competitive grants, distributed annually. If a district doesn't use all of its grant each year, the money is carried over. And a district can apply for even more money in subsequent years.
Rockford received its first round of Reading First money, $1.4 million, in 2002. The district received $1.3 million in 2003-04 and $207,267 this school year.
The $681,000 represents money that has been carried over since 2002.
The affected schools
The loss will hit 10 schools in the 2005-06 school year: Lewis Lemon, Ellis, Beyer, Jackson, Spring Creek, Summerdale, Westview, McIntosh, Nashold and Swan Hillman.
The schools will lose literacy coaches, training for teachers and money to buy reading materials. Thompson said the money was paying for programs that are out of step with the reading approach he wants used, called "balanced literacy."
That approach relies on training teachers to discover where students are struggling and beefing up lessons.
Thompson's chief academic officer, Martha Hayes, introduced testing three times a year to identify elementary students' strengths and weaknesses.
The 10 Reading First schools had to give the district-endorsed tests and another round of grant-endorsed tests. Thompson said that was too much.
In addition, all teacher training and materials went to programs that differed from the balanced literacy approach.
Lewis Lemon feud
The shift to balanced literacy has not been without controversy. Former Lewis Lemon Principal Tiffany Parker resisted the move away from "direct instruction," a scripted phonics program that Parker said led her school's third-grade students to some of the district's top test scores in 2003.
Parker was demoted to an assistant principal at Lincoln Middle School in January. Shortly after, Thompson hired private attorneys to probe the Lewis Lemon scores. Parker, in turn, filed a civil suit against Thompson.
In earlier interviews with the Rockford Register Star, Parker said she told the state that the new wave of reading was hurting her ability to run the program supported by Reading First. She won't comment now because of her lawsuit.
Board attorney Steve Katz said Monday that the grant loss is unrelated to the controversy at Lewis Lemon.
"It has nothing to do with Tiffany Parker and Lewis Lemon," Katz said.
Board President Nancy Kalchbrenner said Monday that she is aware of the loss and expects a report at next week's board meeting.
Board member Mike Williams called the loss a travesty.
"That may have been his (Thompson's) overall plan, but it was not communicated to board members and it will mean the loss of staff," Williams said.
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