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Fighting for SAGE

Will state renege on its commitment?

By Adam Blust
WEAC staff assistant

SAGE is a state program with an impressive attribute: it works.

“(SAGE) has had more effect on students than anything I have seen in 21 years of teaching,” said John Schroeder, principal at Hamilton Elementary School in La Crosse.

The Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program grew out of recommendations by the Department of Public Instruction’s Urban Initiative Task Force, which recommended ways to improve education in schools with large concentrations of children from low-income families. Its focus is to lower class sizes in early grades, increase school and community interaction, and improve curriculum and staff development.

SAGE provides up to $2,000 in aid for each low-income student in the covered grades. The participating schools are generally those with the highest percentage of low-income children. With the aid comes the school’s commitment to keep all kindergarten and 1st grade classes to 15 students or fewer – small classes have been shown to have a consistent and lasting effect on student achievement.

In SAGE’s first year of operation, schools that have reduced classes in kindergarten and 1st grade to 15 students have already seen dramatic results (see story on page 9).

But educators and administrators are worried about the governor’s intention to freeze the SAGE budget, leaving no money to expand the program into the 2nd and 3rd grades, despite a commitment to do so.

“These schools have been planning all year to go to 2nd grade,” said Janice Zmrazek, SAGE program coordinator at DPI. “We’re not sure what they’ll do now.”

Zmrazek said she fears many of the 30 schools in 21 districts now participating in the program will drop out if the funding is frozen.

That would be a particularly shortsighted move, Zmrazek said, because SAGE is a program designed to avoid many of the pitfalls that plague other categorical aid programs. First, there is money allocated in the program for evaluation, so funds aren’t just given to the best-written proposal without any followup. The evaluation, done by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Urban Initiative and Research, will be updated each year to make it easier to track the progress of SAGE.

Secondly, in order to participate, each school must have clear objectives for what it wants students to achieve with the SAGE funds, and must report on its progress each year.

Also, the program has a definite ending date; it’s scheduled to last only five years, to give Wisconsin educators a chance to evaluate the real effects of smaller class sizes.

Smaller classes have already been proven a success in Tennessee, where a class size reduction initiative called Project STAR showed substantial improvements in reading, math and basic study skills.

While small classes has been the main focus of attention with SAGE, Zmrazek said the other goals of the program can have just as dramatic an impact on student achievement: making curriculum more demanding, giving the community more access to school buildings through the “lighted schoolhouse” concept, and increasing professional development for teachers.

“Lighted schoolhouse” means schools are left open for expanded hours before and after classes. In Green Bay, for example, the computer lab at Jefferson Elementary is open on weekends for the community to use.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Zmrazek said of SAGE. “It’s not just making people feel good. It has a firm objective, and it’s getting results.”

'A program that really works'

Following are a few of many testimonials from people involved in the SAGE program this year.

  • “There’s more one-on-one with the kids. I can actually sit down and read with a child and not have the room dissolve into chaos,” Nancy Allen, a first-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary in Green Bay said in an interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “I’ve taught school for 26 years, and the opportunity to have 15 or less children sounded like a miracle.”
  • At Franklin Elementary in La Crosse, Principal Terry Witzke reports that kindergarten teachers believe SAGE has helped students perform several months ahead of expectations. As part of the “lighted schoolhouse,” Franklin has an after-school program for parents of ESL students, three hours a day four days a week, that is regularly attended by 18 parents. The school is also an activity site for the local Boys and Girls Club.
  • Principal Tom Scott from Siren Elementary School said the 2nd and 3rd grade teachers can’t wait to see the program expanded into their classrooms, and the program has been so positive that the school is looking into the possibility of bringing the program to grades 4 through 6 on its own. No students at Siren are going to be held back this year, Scott said, and students are so motivated that they are doing their own presentations at parent conferences.
  • In Milwaukee Public Schools, principals of SAGE schools said teachers in higher grades were requesting transfers to SAGE classrooms, and that behavior problems in those classes were practically non-existent.

Posted May 29, 1997