Officials scramble to meet Race to Top deadline Tuesday
DONALDSONVILLE — Several area school districts are taking their shot at an elusive, lucrative federal grant.
The U.S. Department of Education announced in August that it would hand out $383 million to between 15 and 25 school districts across the country as part of its Race to the Top competition, which previously provided more than $4 billion in grants to states, including Louisiana, that undertook ambitious educational reforms.
The grants will range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the size of the school districts, and are available to districts with more than 2,000 students and 40 percent or more who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.
Fourteen districts in Louisiana were among nearly 900 across the country that originally stated their intent to apply for one of the competitive grants. However, not all of those districts who intended to apply actually will. The applications are due Tuesday.
Locally, Ascension, Assumption, Iberville, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lafourche, Orleans, St. Helena and St. James stated their intent to apply for the grant.
Kelli Joseph, superintendent for St. Helena Parish schools, said her district wouldn’t be able to meet Tuesday’s deadline, while Lafayette Parish Superintendent Pat Cooper also said his district wouldn’t apply because it had too many other concerns to deal with prior to the end of the month.
Attempts to reach officials from Assumption, Iberville, St. Helena and St. James parishes were unsuccessful, while officials from Jefferson, Lafourche and Orleans parishes confirmed they would submit proposals.
Although acknowledging the slim odds of landing one of the grant awards, Ascension Parish officials said they were confident in the proposal they put together as they seek nearly $30 million.
“We feel we are well on our way to being highly competitive,” said Jennifer Tuttleton, director of school improvement for Ascension Parish schools.
Ascension’s plan revolves around three key elements: building strong leaders through a leadership academy, deepening professional learning communities and deepening the personalization of learning for both teachers and students. These are not new ideas, Superintendent Patrice Pujol said, but rather an expansion of programs the district already is using that have helped it become one of the top-rated districts in the state.
Tuttleton said the Race to the Top grant funds would be used to strengthen ideas with proven success.
“Without the human capital, we cannot continue to move the schools forward,” she said.
Kyle Goss, the executive director of policy for Jefferson Parish schools, said his district’s focus was similar to the one being implemented in Ascension Parish — concentrate on what is already working, not something revolutionary.
“We’re going to focus on what we are doing and how we can scale those things up,” he said.
The crux of Jefferson’s plan involves giving educators multiple tools to personalize learning for students, Goss said.
District leaders in Ascension Parish worked tirelessly — “We have worked hard; we have sweated hard,” Tuttleton said — over an approximately three-week span in order to put together a grant proposal of more than 200 pages. They received input from both local leaders and officials from the state Department of Education, and both Pujol and Tuttleton said they truly believe the district has a chance to win one of the “ultra-competitive” grants.
Pujol said the nearly $30 million would help Ascension adjust to the ever-increasing standards that are being handed down on the state and national levels.
“It is critical that we meet these higher standards because that is the only way we will meet out mission of making every student successful in an ever-changing world,” Pujol said.
The Race to the Top competition focuses on many of the same components as the statewide grant project, pushing local districts to adopt new standards and assessments to prepare students for competing in the global economy, build data systems to measure student success, recruit and develop effective teachers and principals, and turn around their lowest-achieving schools. In order to enter the competition, districts had to agree to have in place by the 2014-15 school year evaluation systems to measure teacher, principal and superintendent performance.
Tuttleton said Ascension’s grant proposal spells out specific outcome measures that district officials believe can be achieved by leveraging the Race to the Top funds.
Among the outcomes officials hope to achieve, Tuttleton said, are placing high-quality teachers and administrators in every school, increasing literary and math test scores, narrowing the achievement gap among minority students and increasing the district’s graduation rates.
Similar to his counterparts to the north, Goss stressed the application process was a lot of work with more to be done before Tuesday’s deadline. However, he said it had been a positive experience that featured a great deal of collaboration among departments throughout the district.
“It was really a tough task … (but) it’s been a great exercise to dig in and to ask some questions as to where you are as a district and to think about what makes sense for us moving forward,” Goss said.