Instead of slumping over desks working line after line of math problems, boys and girls in a fifth grade class at Rio Vista Elementary in Bay Point attentively assume their "learning positions," taking on the roles of bank customers as they carefully record deposits, withdrawals and taxes in their ledgers.

"You're getting some 'Mr. Moses loves me' money," teacher Jonathan Moses told the students, who grinned happily as they wrote in the amounts at the beginning of the school year. "Are we making a deposit or a withdrawal? Tell your partner."

In the 10 years since No Child Left Behind turned the world of education upside down, schools such as Rio Vista have done everything but pull rabbits out of hats in an effort to engage students, energize teachers and boost test scores -- without additional funding, and with budget cuts.

In a handful of cases those low-performing schools have made modest gains. But a year after schools in five East Bay districts received nearly $45 million in federal money to pay for new instructional programs, longer school days, summer school and teacher training, some improvements have been downright dramatic.

The U.S. Department of Education grant program is aimed at reforming failing schools within three years. In Hayward, Mt. Diablo, and West Contra Costa districts, the money has made a huge difference by funding staff, programs and training that immediately boosted test scores, as evidenced at Rio Vista. In the Oakland and San Lorenzo districts, improvement is taking longer while schools work to overcome obstacles and fully implement their plans.

Rio Vista gained 66 points on its Academic Performance Index score last year, which measures math and English proficiency on a scale of 200 to 1,000. The school's API score of 735 is still short of the state proficiency goal of 800, but its dramatic improvement far surpassed its seven-point growth target.

Principal Susan Valdez attributes its spectacular rise in part to the three-year, $1.3 million School Improvement Grant the Mt. Diablo school district received. The money paid for staff time outside of the classroom setting to analyze test results and pinpoint student weaknesses. The teachers worked together to plan lessons that are fun yet rigorous.

To be eligible for the grant, schools must have scored in the bottom 5 percent in the state. Most are in low-income areas, and many have a high percentage of minority students and English language learners.

In January, the state Department of Education, which oversees the awards in California, approved grants totaling $10.8 million a year for six more schools within three of the same districts starting in the fall. Teachers and administrators plan to build on what they've learned during the first round, fine-tuning improvements in second-round schools. They will use the next six months to gear up so they can launch new programs quickly in 2012-13.

Even without the money, some of these schools have already made great gains as they ramp up efforts to standardize instruction, beef up professional development, and test students more often to see if they're learning what's being taught. Collaboration between teachers, administrators and other staff has been a key ingredient to success, based on years of trying new things in an attempt to figure out what works and to free struggling schools from the penalties of No Child Left Behind.

The extra money comes at a time when most districts are cut to the bone and finding it hard to provide basic services. Even where the grant hasn't yet translated to improved test scores, administrators are confident it will improve educational opportunities for the students.

After one year, Burbank and Longwood elementary schools in the Hayward district and Lincoln Elementary in the West Contra Costa district saw test scores soar, while scores dropped slightly in three schools in the San Lorenzo and Oakland districts.

In the Mt. Diablo district, three elementary schools including Rio Vista made great gains. The only low point came when Glenbrook Middle School's scores droppedafter trustees decided in March to close the campus at the end of the school year and forfeit the rest of its grant money.

To qualify for the grants, schools had to agree to reform staffing and instruction, and increase class time. The schools were also required to replace principals that had been there longer than two years.

West Contra Costa district provides full-day kindergarten with grant

Lincoln Elementary in the West Contra Costa district chose to replace more than half the staff to get its $1.2 million annual grant, ensuring that the teachers are on board with the programs.

Parents said through a staff translator that they are happy with the new teachers and their children's enthusiasm for school. Lincoln spends its money on a librarian, parent outreach, summer school, an extra hour of instruction for all students and full-day kindergarten, including some bilingual classes.

In Dorian Barrero-Dominguez's bilingual kindergarten class last month, student Samuel Vasquez used a light saber to lead his peers in reading words on the board. The full day allows Barrero-Dominguez the time to teach subjects such as science and social studies in addition to reading, writing and math.

Parents said they have noticed a big improvement at Lincoln since it got the funding, especially in their children's reading abilities. They don't want to lose these improvements when the grant ends next year.

"If they take the money away, the school is going to go down," said Olivia Banunuri, whose children are in kindergarten and third grade. "They need to keep it so the kids can continue to learn and get a good education."

To keep the new staff intact, the West Contra Costa school board on Feb. 15 voted to exempt teachers at the school from anticipated layoffs, which could affect 27 elementary positions in the district.

Hayward district's three schools make impressive gains

Hayward is spending its $16 million in grant money on professional development for teachers, technology, technical support, a summer academy, a "spring training" program for elementary children and a "twilight school" for Tennyson High students. The program includes community college and career training courses, along with clubs and activities such as tae kwon do.

Tennyson posted a respectable 12-point API score increase, while Burbank and Longwood saw stunning gains of 75 and 79 points, respectively.

"The teachers at the two elementary schools really did a whole paradigm shift," said Lety Salinas, executive director for academic affairs in the district. "They feel responsible not just for their own classroom, but they feel that all of the students are their students. They feel this sense of community schoolwide, and it's fantastic."

The grants allowed elementary students to travel to Mills College last summer to participate in a writing program with other Bay Area students. At Tennyson High, funding helps support a partnership with Chabot Community College that trains students for jobs such as medical assistants while they earn college credits.

Late grants stymied progress in Oakland and San Leandro districts

The state did not distribute the first-year funds to districts until after the school year had started. Some successful schools were able to implement plans despite the late funding, but Oakland and San Lorenzo found that more difficult to do because they did not have reserve funds to hire extra staff to begin essential collaboration to implement their plans.

Although scores at Elmhurst Prep and United for Success in Oakland dropped by 4 and 9 points last year, the district's grant coordinator is optimistic that scores will rise this year.

"This is actually a typical trend in school turnaround work," said Aaron Townsend, "where the first year is flat or dips academically, while the organization sets a new culture and goes through a change process."

Hillside Elementary in the San Lorenzo district faced similar obstacles, said Principal Pam VandeKamp. The school scrambled to hire teachers after receiving funds in October 2010 and wasn't able to launch its after-school program until January 2011, she said.

Now in its second year, the money is helping the school to provide Boys' and Girls' clubs, enrichment classes and other programs offered through community partnerships. Hillside is also spending $1,000 per teacher on retention stipends to help curb turnover.

"The sense of community is very strong here, and teachers feel very connected to our community," VandeKamp said. "That money recognizes that they are working in a challenging environment in a high-poverty school, and so any way we can support that is good for us."

The state expects schools to sustain programs and improvements after the money dries up, which is already worrying VandeKamp and other administrators. She wants to create a foundation to keep the programs and staff the grant has provided.

New grants bring big plans to schools slated for funds

Four low-performing schools that haven't yet received the grants improved significantly before getting the money, while two others are hoping the extra revenues will help turn around declining test scores. Meadow Homes Elementary and Oak Grove Middle School in the Mt. Diablo district replaced their principals because they had been there longer than two years. Meadow Homes' API score soared 53 points last year under previous leadership, after years of uneven performance.

New instructional programs such as Board Math and Board English, which include oral repetition based on lessons written by teachers on large white boards, helped the largely English-learner population learn and retain facts, teachers and students said.

New Principal Mary-Louise Newling said the extra $2 million a year will be spent on hands-on science and math activities, computer technology, high-quality literature, social studies and visual and performing arts programs, which will help the school's kindergarten- through fifth-graders become independent thinkers. She also plans to allocate funding for teacher training in literacy and instructional strategies.

"I really want this to be a lab school where people can hone their craft and be a showcase for the district," she said, explaining that focusing solely on rote math and English skills would not meet students' needs. "In my opinion, that's why children get turned off. They remember the hands-on stuff."

Staff writer Katy Murphy contributed to this report.

EAST BAY SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT GRANTS
County District First Round Awards (3 years, 2010-2013) Second Round (first year award, 2012-13)
Alameda Hayward $16 million $0 (Not eligible)
Oakland $8.5 million $3.3 million
San Lorenzo $1.6 million $0 (not eligible)
Contra Costa Mt. Diablo $14.8 million* $3.8 million
West Contra Costa $4 million $3.7 million
TOTAL $44.9 million* $10.8 million
*Amount later reduced when one school closed after first year.
Source: California State Board of Education
More information is in the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.

FIRST ROUND TEST SCORES AFTER ONE YEAR WITH GRANTS
School 2010 API* 2011 API Change Yr. 1 grant**
Alameda County
Burbank Elem. 716 795 +79 $1.6 million
Longwood Elem. 620 695 +75 $1.6 million
Tennyson High 649 661 +12 $1.8 million
Elmhurst Prep 684 680 -4 $1.2 million
United for Success 606 597 -9 $1.3 million
Hillside Elementary 659 651 -8 $530,980
Contra Costa County
Bel Air Elem. 646 671 +25 $1.4 million
Glenbrook Middle 658 640 -18 $584,002
(closed June, 2011)
Rio Vista Elem. 669 735 +66 $443,230
Shore Acres Elem. 659 672 +13 $1.2 million
Lincoln Elem. 659 719 +60 $1.2 million
SECOND ROUND TEST SCORES BEFORE GRANTS
School 2010 API* 2011 API Change Yr.1 grant**
Alameda County
Alliance Academy 702 688 -14 $1.4 million
ROOTS Academy 593 631 +38 $1.4 million
Contra Costa County
Meadow Homes Elem. 648 701 +53 $2 million
Oak Grove Middle 642 638 -4 $1.5 million
Helms Middle 617 655 +38 $2 million
De Anza High 635 664 +29 $1.6 million
*Academic Performance Index based on test scores, with a high of 1,000 possible and a goal of 800 for student proficiency in math and English.
**Not including district grants to help administer the school grants.
Source: California State Board of Education