Wisconsin Center for Education Research wins $15 million grant to improve student achievement

December 27, 2012

More than 4,000 students and their families will be better prepared for success in school thanks to the expansion of an initiative developed by UW–Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Researchers at UW–Madison were awarded nearly $15 million in federal funding to improve low-performing schools in economically disadvantaged communities as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2012 Investing in Innovation competition, also known as i3.

The grant is going to the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), part of the School of Education, to expand a family engagement program in 60 elementary schools in Philadelphia.

WCER Director Adam Gamoran is serving as the project’s lead investigator. His team will spend the next five years expanding and further examining the merits of the Families and Schools Together, or FAST, program.

Photo: Adam Gamoran

Gamoran

“The FAST program has shown its ability to improve children’s academic social behavior for more than a decade,” Gamoran says. “It has been implemented across 1,000 schools in the U.S., and internationally in more than a dozen countries. This recognition from the U.S. Department of Education further validates its value.”

The innovative program targets children’s early socialization and learning skills to build a lifetime of success in school and beyond.

Developed by Lynn McDonald in 1988 and disseminated by the Madison-based non-profit, Families and Schools Together, Inc., FAST brings together multiple families, teachers and community members. They meet once a week for eight weeks to share a meal and participate in a variety of structured social activities, including music, family games and children’s sports.”

Results from this research-based initiative have indicated that students whose families have taken part in the FAST program experience fewer behavioral problems and show improved academic performance.

The project will start with kindergartners and their families, and continue support through second grade. The gatherings are designed to increase parents’ comfort level with the school by helping to build trusting relationships among parents, school staff and community partners. The sessions also are aimed at reducing family conflict by empowering parents to interact positively with their children.

WCER is partnering on this project with the School District of Philadelphia and Turning Points for Children, a nonprofit which has been helping to administer FAST in Philadelphia and played a key role in securing a $1.5 million matching grant from the for-profit sector.

The national non-profit Families and Schools Together, Inc., will provide training and quality control for the project, while the American Institutes for Research will serve as the independent evaluator.

Gamoran says the School District of Philadelphia was chosen as the site for two reasons.

“The FAST program has shown its ability to improve children’s academic social behavior for more than a decade. It has been implemented across 1,000 schools in the U.S., and internationally in more than a dozen countries. This recognition from the U.S. Department of Education further validates its value.”

Adam Gamoran

First, the local agency Turning Points for Children has nine years of experience implementing the FAST program in 31 schools in the district. The new grant will validate that success on a larger scale while maintaining high quality.  Second, the Philadelphia district has identified parent and family engagement as a priority in school improvement efforts, as reflected in the district’s five-year strategic plan.

According to the 2010 census, 31 percent of Philadelphia’s families with children under age 18 live below the federal poverty level. The district serves more than  12,000 kindergarten children per year across 167 schools, among which 61 faced corrective action or restructuring during the 2011-12 academic year, and another 30 were under warning. 

Of those 91 schools, 60 are not currently involved with the FAST intervention.  It is these 60 schools — serving more than 4,000 kindergarteners — that will take part in the new project.

In all, more than 700 applicants across the country submitted proposals to secure i3 program funding, and in November the 20 highest-rated projects were announced.

“The government was incredibly selective,” Gamoran says. “Fewer than 3 percent of applicants made it through the final round. The FAST program has been vetted by a rigorous screening mechanism.”

Before federal funding could be secured, the Department of Education required each finalist to secure private-sector matching funds, either in cash or in-kind, within four weeks. Private donors are providing more than $16 million to support this year’s i3 projects.

“We know private partners play a huge role in driving local education reform efforts when they can invest in promising ideas, and these grantees have proposed a variety of innovative approaches to close achievement gaps and ultimately prepare every student for lifelong success,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the i3 awards “Partnerships like these are vital to supporting teachers and students as they tackle some of the toughest issues in education.”

The 2012 cohort of 20 projects will share more than $140 million in federal funds designed to accelerate student achievement