CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2010, less than 30 percent of students at Richwood High School were proficient in reading and math -- ranking it as one of the lowest achieving high schools in West Virginia.
Since then, math scores on standardized tests have increased by 60 percent, and about half of the Richwood student body is now proficient in reading, which is higher than the state's average.
In a little more than a year, Richwood has improved from ranking 92nd of 124 high schools in the state to 40th, based on state test scores for reading/language arts.
Nicholas County Superintendent Beverly Kingery said Richwood's secret to success is simple: School Improvement Grants.
"SIG funds have been a godsend for Richwood High School, and the transformation educationally has been phenomenal," she said. "It has benefited students beyond expectation."
Over the course of two years, the 400-student high school has been awarded about $1 million in federal stimulus money as part of the Obama administration's plan to transform the country's substandard schools.
With the funding, the school has brought in specialists to train staff, revamped the schedule based on student need and sent teachers to national conferences to learn how to improve the school environment.
"Before this, most of these teachers had never had the opportunity to travel outside of Nicholas County to see what other schools were doing to succeed. Because of this, they have garnered new ideas and are continuing to build the school around a culture of success," Kingery said. "It hasn't only helped students learn -- teachers are learning, too."
Richwood is one of many schools in the state to receive SIG funding over the past few years. West Virginia has been awarded nearly $30 million since 2009.
But not everyone has success stories like Nicholas County.
Kanawha County was required to replace five principals to receive the funding. Although the school system did see academic improvements, administration says it wasn't worth the strings attached to the "overregulated process."
"In this economy, it's hard to turn down a bucket of money, but I think what we learned is that the strings that were attached to it may have caused us more harm than good. It's been a very painful process for administrators," Kanawha County Board of Education member Robin Rector told the Gazette-Mail last spring.
Federal requirements did not force Richwood principal Carter Hillman to resign to receive the money because he had held the position for less than two years.
But Hillman said he knows where the Kanawha County administrators are coming from.
"It was complicated at first, and the paperwork was egregious at times, but we got a lot of money. And for us, that meant kids went from bubbling in Christmas tree designs on Westest to actually requesting review sessions so they could do better," he said. "If you pull the ring to get it, you better believe there's a tether attached."
Hillman said that in an area with a high poverty level and consistently low attendance and graduation rates, the federal money came just in time.
"We were always on the cliff of disaster, but tried to keep the end out of our peripheral range. If what we were doing was just good enough and people left us alone, we were complacent. All of that has changed," he said. "We're dealing with kids who come from tough situations, and it's huge to see them making these improvements. We were honest with them when we were identified as a failing school, and we told them what we needed them to do and promised to do it with them."
This year was the first time Richwood High made Annual Yearly Progress in six years, and Hillman said because most of the grant has been put toward staff training known as "professional development," he's confident the improvements that came with SIG will stay even after the funding dries up.
Annual Yearly Progress -- which also has been referred to as "adequate yearly progress" -- is a term describing state and federal benchmarks that measure a school's improvement and overall success.
"We traded the money for education. In a lot of ways, our teachers went back to school. That in itself is sustainable. You can't take an education from someone," Hillman said. "We're not going to retire in 2013 when the money is gone. A lot of the things we gained from this don't cost a penny."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at email@example.com or 304-348-5100.