JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: federal stimulus money and a school system in upstate New York.
The reporter is John Tulenko of Learning Matters television, which produces education stories for the “NewsHour.”
JOHN TULENKO: When Andrew Walker started high school in Rochester, New York, his learning disability made graduation seem unlikely.
ANDREW WALKER, Student: Sometimes, I would be having problems figuring things out. Like, sometimes, I’m reading something and I don’t really get it. I would raise my hand. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wasn’t learning.
JOHN TULENKO: But a program to train students with special needs for the work force, Rochester’s Work Experience Program, put Andrew on track for on-time graduation. Now a senior, he’s in small academic classes that meet every morning, and, every afternoon, he earns school credit building this house.
ANDREW WALKER: When it’s finished, I could just come back and look at it, like, yes, I did that. That’s pretty beautiful, give you a lot of pride.
JOHN TULENKO: But with the economy in recession, Rochester schools began cutting back on programs like this one.
Carleen Meers is the director.
CARLEEN MEERS: I went to look at certain budget lines, and they were markedly different than what I had expected.
JOHN TULENKO: How different?
CARLEEN MEERS: Well, some lines at zero. And that’s a little scary when you’re looking at a salary line. And I said, this can’t be right. This can’t be right, because we can’t run the program.
JOHN TULENKO: Work Experience wasn’t the only program in jeopardy.
Jean-Claude Brizard oversees Rochester’s 60 schools and its budget of $700 million.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD, superintendent, Rochester City Schools: We had a $50 million budget shortfall coming into last fiscal year. At the time, we were predicting about 500 layoffs, which would create a big problem for us as a district. I know, as a city, we couldn’t put 500 individuals in the streets.
JOHN TULENKO: Then, in February, the president signed the stimulus, sending $100 billion to the nation’s schools to be spent over two years.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because we know America can’t outcompete the world tomorrow if our children are being outeducated today, we’re making the largest investment in education in our nation’s history.
Stimulus spending in Rochester
JOHN TULENKO: This year, Rochester's share was about $30 million. Here and in most other districts, the bulk of the money restored jobs -- $1.6 million brought back the staff of the Work Experience Program.
CARLEEN MEERS: We have an alternate pathway to graduation. We have an opportunity for students to have choice. That could have been a big loss.
CHILDREN and CONNIE CASTANEDA, Strong Start coordinator: One, two, three, four, five.
CONNIE CASTANEDA: Good job.
JOHN TULENKO: One hundred and sixteen thousand from the stimulus also restored Strong Start, a program serving 757 kindergarten and first-graders.
CONNIE CASTANEDA: I like the way you're doing it.
JOHN TULENKO: Coordinator Connie Castaneda was saved from a layoff.
CONNIE CASTANEDA: Many of our children come in not recognizing basic colors, basic numbers. They don't have basic vocabulary. We catch the problems early on and help the children have an extra boost, so that they will be able to succeed in the years to come.
JOHN TULENKO: Stimulus dollars not only averted cuts. They also helped successful schools, like World of Inquiry, grow.
STUDENT: Greeting for today is to say -- which means hello in Iroquois' language.
JOHN TULENKO: This is the district's most popular elementary school. But over 100 families are on a waiting list to get in.
Roxanne Henry's children got in by lottery.
My kids have opportunities here that I wasn't able to have at such a young age.
JOHN TULENKO: How is your kids' education different?
ROXANNE HENRY: It's so much tactile. They get to feel it. They get to touch it. They get to see it. They get to experience it. Growing up, we mostly read about it. And, here, they're doing it. And it makes such a big difference for them.
Taking students into the community
JOHN TULENKO: World of Inquiry uses a model called expeditionary learning. Here, semester-long research projects take students into the community.
STUDENT: It's like you become an expert on a subject, like wolves. We went to the zoo last year, when I was in fifth grade. You would ask like, are they really mean? Would they eat you after they already ate something?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD: The school has had tremendous success in literacy and mathematics. Right now, it's number one in science, number one in mathematics in the city of Rochester, despite the fact that it has 70 percent of its kids coming in at or below poverty level.
JOHN TULENKO: To help families lining up to come here, Rochester opened a second school just like it. Ninety-five thousand dollars in stimulus money is going to train the teachers.
How much training will the staff here get?
CHERYL DOBBERTIN, Expeditionary Learning: Three to five years of work intensely with us.
JOHN TULENKO: Cheryl Dobbertin is with Expeditionary Learning. Education nonprofits like hers are seeking out stimulus contracts nationally.
Testing companies are also lining up contracts. Like many districts, one of Rochester's biggest purchases, three-quarters-of-a-million dollars, is for software and tests to track student performance.
Do you really think we need more tests?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD: Yes. In districts, we have often fragmented databases. I want to be able to easily tie in programs to kids to effectiveness of those programs. It's hard to do that.
JOHN TULENKO: Overall, the stimulus helped Rochester hold the line. Of the 500 layoffs expected, only 12 teachers lost jobs. Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the stimulus saved some 325,000 education jobs, but that number may drop as economic conditions worsen.
And, in fact, in New York and other states, new budget gaps have emerged, and new cuts are coming. Cities like Rochester are trying to protect programs the stimulus restored.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD: We're already all working on figuring out how to keep those programs by being more efficient, by looking for other opportunities. We're looking at a staffing reduction over the next three years, but, hopefully, do it through attrition. If we don't do what we have to do, the inevitable is going to face us in about a year or two.
JOHN TULENKO: Already, Rochester has eliminated some 200 positions through retirement and attrition. But it has more scaling-back to do.
Here and elsewhere, stimulus funds run out in two years. If districts cannot come up with replacement money of their own, then programs the stimulus paid for may again disappear.