Once the worst performing schools in the state, Oak Ridge Elementary is now a bright spot in an economically depressed neighborhood in Sacramento. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

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School starts in 10 minutes at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento. Principal Daniel Rolleri is on the blacktop greeting students as he usually does.

Oak Ridge is like many other campuses in cities across the Golden State. The students are mostly poor. Many are struggling to learn English. Others don’t speak it at all.

“There’s a vicious cycle of poverty, there’s a vicious cycle of difficult situations going on in our families’ lives,” says Rolleri, as he makes his final rounds before the bell rings. “Education needs to be the greatest equalizer for our students to succeed in life.”

Rolleri is now tasked with steering the school’s finances under California’s bold new experiment in school finance known as the Local Control Funding Formula enacted three years ago.

Bridging the educational disparities is at the heart of the groundbreaking approach. It comes after years of state funding lawsuits and state test scores showing the state’s academic achievement gap has not budged.

The goal of the funding system is simple: Give schools like Oak Ridge more money and more control over how to spend that money. In exchange, school leaders have to demonstrate their spending decisions are getting more at-risk students learning.

The hope is that local school leaders — not state legislators — will choose more targeted strategies and programs because they understand the unique needs of their students.

So now, public schools serving large numbers of low-income students, English-language learners and foster youth are getting extra cash infusions every year.

“This is the way to fund schools in these high-poverty, high-needs areas,” Rolleri says. “Give them additional money and allow them to hire the additional resources. Getting results may take time and energy but, at the end of the day, it takes human bodies.”

New Spending Freedom

Six years ago, Oak Ridge Elementary was one of the worst schools in the state.

The district finally responded and brought in an academic team that breathed new life into the campus.

Now, under the state’s new way of funding schools, Oak Ridge is getting roughly $185,000 in additional state revenue for its high-needs students. The school has a $1.4 million operating budget overall.

But here’s the thing: Despite this money coming in from the state, Oak Ridge still has to make cuts because several other streams of district and federal funding are drying up — those dollars have been paying for people and programs at the heart of this campus.

Oak Ridge Elementary School Principal Daniel Rolleri looks out a hallway window as he makes the rounds on campus. The school serves low-income families in a challenging neighborhood in Sacramento.
Oak Ridge Elementary School Principal Daniel Rolleri looks out a hallway window as he makes the rounds on campus. The school serves low-income families in a challenging neighborhood in Sacramento. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

It’s not typical, but a growing number of schools in California face the same challenge.

Rolleri recently had to cut four resource teachers, which is not good for this all-hands-on-deck kind of school.

Tensions can run high really fast among students. On this day, a fight breaks out after lunch. A sixth-grade girl is hit in the face.

“She’s going to relax in my office for a little bit,” says Rolleri, as he walks her to his office. “She’s a little emotional, a little upset.”

Every teacher at this school has a way of helping kids calm down. Rolleri’s technique is aromatherapy. He sits the girl down in his office, lets her choose from three different aromas, turns on a small water fountain, and gives her some time alone.

Rolleri says students lash out not because they’re bad kids, but because there’s distress and frustration in school and at home.

He’s determined to use state funding on programs that help kids feel good about themselves.

Crunching the Numbers

After lunch and recess, Rolleri focuses on finalizing next year’s budget. He scarfs down a meal bar, takes off his tie and rolls up his sleeves.

“When I first took over as principal, the budget was the hardest thing for me to grasp and understand,” Rolleri says. “Now that I have more experience and understanding, it’s a little bit easier, but still hard.”

Rolleri is a bit more nervous than usual this afternoon. He’s meeting with district officials in an hour to go over the spending plan, and the numbers aren’t adding up.

Principal Daniel Rolleri works from his desk on a typical school day morning. He's leading a campus which is facing some serious financial decisions despite getting additional revenue from the state.
Principal Daniel Rolleri works from his desk on a typical school day morning. He’s leading a campus which is facing some serious financial decisions despite getting additional revenue from the state. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

Under the new funding rules, Rolleri must also show that he’s spending the additional state revenue on people and programs that will improve student performance.

“Just because we do have additional funding, additional resources, doesn’t make the job easy,” Rolleri says. “And I think that’s the misperception some people have. It’s not easy. I would even say it’s harder because inherently there is the obligation that we can’t ruin this, we can’t mess this up.”

For the most part, school districts up and down California have been spending their share of extra state funding on teacher pay raises — raising serious concerns over whether that’s an appropriate use of the money.

School officials, however, insist paying teachers more money does help at-risk students because good educators are more willing to stay at tough schools for the long haul.

At Oak Ridge, Rolleri plans to use a big chunk of the additional revenue for one position: the assistant principal.

He believes this position is critical because it’s the first line of defense for everything on campus, from dealing with arguing parents to helping struggling students.

An Assistant Principal’s Value

Oak Ridge Assistant Principal Tiffany Wilson rarely sits in her office. Instead, she can be found darting around campus helping students.

Today Wilson is sitting under a tree at the school’s community garden talking with a student who is struggling in class.

Wilson, a former Sacramento County teacher of the year, finds out the boy is a middle child and he feels like his mother doesn’t care about him anymore. His father is not in the picture.

Wilson says her role helps high-needs students on campus because dealing with their personal struggles allows teachers to teach, and kids to learn.

“While my impact on academics might be a bit more indirect, I do think my role is important in making teachers not feel overwhelmed,” Wilson says. “I can pull things off their plate, which allows them to teach their hearts out.”

Principal Daniel Rolleri checks in with the school's behavioral specialist during recess at Oak Ridge Elementary.
Principal Daniel Rolleri checks in with the school’s behavioral specialist during recess at Oak Ridge Elementary. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

California’s next big challenge is making sure schools like Oak Ridge are improving student performance based on their spending decisions.

So far, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union say there’s no assurance the additional dollars are producing better academic results.

State education officials say that’s because California just switched to a new standardized state test, and this is the first year all public schools must implement Common Core academic standards.

On top of that, state education officials say the state is in the midst of developing a new accountability system that measures school achievement in an entirely new way, using multiple metrics, including school climate, parent involvement and test scores.

Even so, some critics worry school leaders are simply funding existing people and programs without exploring other ways to approach school improvement.

Getting Parent Buy-In

At Oak Ridge Elementary, most parent leaders support the principal’s decision to spend a sizable amount of extra state funding on the school’s assistant principal.

“I’ve seen the changes at the school,” says April Ybarra, a single mom with two girls at Oak Ridge. “The administrators are trying to make a difference. I definitely think it’s a team effort.”

The local school budgeting process is also a team effort under the new funding approach.

District and school leaders are now required to include parents in the budgeting process, allowing them to weigh in on the types of programs and services they want for their kids.

This is yet another game changer in California school finance.

A handball court is decorated with school pride at Oak Ridge Elementary, one of seven "priority schools" in the Sacramento Unified School District.
A handball court is decorated with school pride at Oak Ridge Elementary, one of seven “priority schools” in the Sacramento Unified School District. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

For decades, school officials, from superintendents to finance officers, operated on their own at district headquarters.

Now they’re getting out of their offices and organizing community budget meetings, interacting with parents face-to-face, and leading workshops on the new funding rules.

Rolleri passed out surveys and held afterschool meetings at Oak Ridge to get feedback from his families. A school site council made up of parents, teachers and administrators approved the final spending plan.

“I do feel like we have a say in it,” Ybarra says. “The problem is not enough parents at the school understand or care about what this money means and what it can be used for.”

A 2015 Ed Trust West report finds California’s new spending rules are getting more people involved, but some schools and districts are still not experiencing a “deep level of engagement.”

Rolleri is one principal who appreciates having more spending freedom in exchange for community involvement.

“We’re not perfect by any means,” Roller says. “But, at the end of the day, we’re trying to make sure we’re meeting everyone’s needs. Student data is going to be the best place for me to figure out what we need to do to support and move forward.”

This report is the first in Budgeting From the Blacktop, a four-part series by Ana Tintocalis taking a deep look at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento.

See how much your school district spends per student, and how that compares to the national average (map via NPR):


This story is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.