The U.S. Department of Education passed over California’s largest school districts in selecting finalists for the Race to the Top district competition. Out of 17 districts that applied for a share of the nearly $400 million in federal grant money, only four made the cut to the finals: Galt Joint Union Elementary, Lindsay Unified and New Haven Unified school districts, along with Ánimo Charter Schools, a division of Green Dot Public Schools. Districts that didn’t make the cut include Los Angeles, Fresno and Clovis Unified.
California’s finalists will still be competing against huge urban districts, however. Included among the 61 finalists from around the country are New York City (the nation’s largest school district), Philadelphia, Dallas and Miami-Dade.
Under this latest incarnation of the popular Race to the Top program, winning districts will receive between $5 million and $40 million over four years to implement model programs designed to close achievement gaps, improve teaching and boost student learning and achievement by personalizing education.
New Haven Unified
New Haven Superintendent Kari McVeigh said she and other administrators were headed into a meeting when they heard the news, and they all began cheering. She said the 13,000-student district in Union City isn’t well known, and so they wrote the grant “believing that we had a good chance, and that probably defied the odds for us to think that way.”
The district is seeking $28 million over four years to expand programs and activities already under way, including hiring additionalliteracy, math and assessment coaches to help teachers use data to personalize instruction for students and leadership development. Some of the money would also go to buy enough mini tablets for every two elementary school students and for each middle and high school student, to hire IT professionals to support the technology, to expand online courses for high school students and to reduce class sizes for English learners.
McVeigh also wants to build up the Kids’ Zone, a collaboration of community organizations and the city government, loosely based on the Harlem Children’s Zone, that links students and their families living in the district’s lowest-income neighborhood with social services, doctors, mental health providers and dentists in order to give them the support and care they need to be successful in school.
It’s important to McVeigh that, if they receive the grant, it goes to improving and continuing current programs rather than to creating one more education reform du jour. “The last thing I want to do to my teachers is give them another thing to do,” she said.
Ánimo Charter Schools
Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles County learned that they made it to the finals through a congratulatory phone call from John Deasy, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District. [Deasy wasn’t as gracious about the failure of LAUSD’s proposal, blaming it on the lack of support from the teachers union. “They killed it for our kids and staff,” he told EdSource Today through the district’s public information officer].
The nonprofit charter management organization enrolls more than 10,000 students in 14 high schools and four middle schools under the Ánimo banner in South, Central and East Los Angeles. The vast majority are poor; 96 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Part of Green Dot’s mission is to prepare them not just to get into college, but to succeed once they’ve been accepted. Efforts to improve those odds are among the five initiatives in Green Dot’s Race to the Top application.
- Personalize pathways to college: Individualizing pathways for English learners and special education students, along with augmenting after-school programs that prepare students for the California High School Exit Exam and the SAT exam.
- College persistence: The transition from high school to college can be challenging for students who are the first in their family to pursue a higher education. Green Dot proposes to survey its graduates to see if they stayed in college and, if not, to find out what the Ánimo schools can do to improve their college success rates. The grant would also fund a summer program to help high school graduating seniors prepare for the transition to college.
- Technology: Buying new equipment, such as tablets, computers, document cameras and smart boards, and providing better training for teachers, students and parents so the schools don’t wind up with a bunch of fancy new gadgets that aren’t used to enhance teaching and learning.
- Developing leadership and life skills: Offering classes that students need to succeed outside of school, including time management, money management and preparation for interviews.
- Supporting the whole child: Anything from a toothache to the stresses that come from living in poverty can impede a student’s ability to focus on school. Green Dot’s proposal calls for providing access to physical and mental health care on each campus.
For 4,100-student Lindsay Unified, a federal gift of $10 million would enable it to speed up the transition to performance-based learning. That’s a system in which students master subjects at their own pace, regardless of their age and grade in school. In education reform circles it’s a hot topic, especially combined with online technologies that track each student’s progress. Performance- or competency-based learning, as it’s also known, is in sync with a priority of District Race to the Top, promoting individualized learning.
But Lindsay Unified, located in the Central Valley, southeast of Visalia and west of Route 99, is not a Johnny-come-lately. Superintendent Thomas Rooney said the district has been designing performance-based curricula and teaching techniques for four years, and began adopting it, first with ninth graders, in 2009-10. This year it went districtwide. Although those entering third grade in the fall will still be third graders come June, they may be doing fifth grade math and second grade reading. If they fall two grades behind, though, they get extra one-on-one attention. By high school, they may take some courses in community college, or even graduate early.
Rooney said the grant would “enable us to accelerate the process exponentially,” by training every teacher and principal in personalizing curriculum, testing and electronic grading. The district would build two online libraries: one for educators, explaining the roles of teachers, principals and the superintendent in adopting a performance-based approach, and one for student learning, in which Common Core-aligned lessons, assessments and resources would be detailed. The two platforms would be a playbook for other districts.
Galt Elementary District
The 3,800-student Galt Elementary District would also use $10 million to personalize learning. A key element would be to integrate StrengthsExplorer, a program developed by the Gallup Organization that identifies and builds on the strengths of each student to create individualized learning, said Superintendent Karen Schauer. All teachers and employees have gone through a similar process for staff development.
A focus would be on blended learning, which would combine individualized online learning with classroom instruction. Galt would rebuild its school libraries, which were closed due to budget cuts, to become community resources for parents and students. Computers would be available to be checked out, since many families in Galt, a Central Valley city with high unemployment, don’t have them at home, Schauer said.
The Department expects to select 15-25 winning applications by the end of the year.