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Georgia wins $400 million Race to the Top grant
Local educators eager to see how goals will be implemented
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Georgia finally finished the race.

The state was named as one of 10 winners Tuesday for the second round of the federal "Race to the Top" grant competition for school reform.

With $400 million for its initiatives, Georgia is sharing the remaining $3.4 billion with the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia were named finalists in July.

"I'm excited about its potential to move us forward with what we're already trying to do in the school district," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.
"It'll provide us with the needed resources."

Schofield is a member of the state's Race to the Top committee, and Hall County and Gainesville are two of 26 school districts in the state that support the application.

During the first round of competition, Georgia was the third-highest scorer when finalists were selected in March. Delaware received $100 million for its ideas and Tennessee took $500 million, while Georgia fell 11 points behind its neighbor to the north.

"While this has seemed more like a marathon at times, now the real race begins," said Gov. Sonny Perdue. "I want to thank our Race to the Top teams, including teachers, principals, superintendents and other education professionals, for their hard work in preparing a great application. This is truly a unique opportunity to implement a Georgia-created plan that will accelerate our
work in improving student achievement."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan named the winning states, grant amounts and application points Tuesday afternoon. Georgia ranked eighth in score among the 10 winners and increased 12.8 points on its application since the first round - from 433.6 to 446.4. Some states increased by 50 points, and Hawaii pulled a whopping 97 points ahead of its first application.

Race to the Top applications are judged on four key areas: standards and assessment, data systems that support instruction, "great" teachers and leaders, and turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

Georgia's application, more than 200 pages, points to legislation passed this year that gives the state the power to intervene in troubled school districts. Perdue also supported the idea of using student achievement as a measure in evaluating teachers' job performance.

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer began looking at the state's application again Tuesday afternoon, trying to decide which components come first and what her district will need to do to meet the outlined goals.

"I'm going over the application and looking at all the timelines of what happens first and where our school system will participate in piloting," she said. "What I expect will happen first is the state will address a longitudinal data system because that's at the heart of the application, and everything depends on it."

A data system would allow schools and teachers to follow a student's work throughout the entire education career, helping them to determine strengths and weaknesses of each student sooner.

The district is also fully implementing the new teacher and administrator evaluation programs - CLASS keys and LEADER keys - which will eventually determine pay for performance standards. Gainesville City Schools piloted the programs last year.

Although Dyer is confident about her district meeting expectations under the grant, she's still waiting to see how state officials implement the changes.

"There's hesitancy on two fronts. Should we accept more federal funding with the additional compliance and management? It is something to think about," she said.
"However, Georgia is in a funding crisis for education, so it appears that it would be difficult for anyone to decline this money."

She's also worried about the lack of teacher and administrator input for the initial plan.

"With a new governor and new superintendent, this is an opportunity for them to expand the number of people who had input, particularly on the teacher compensation piece," she said. "So much coordination will have to take place at the state level, so all of those leadership roles will be really important in this."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes said he would take the money, and Republican candidate Nathan Deal, although at first against the ties to federal government, said he would also implement the grant.

Republican state school superintendent candidate John Barge does not agree with the initial application, but Democratic superintendent candidate Joe Martin supports the program overall.

After talking with both Deal and Barge on Monday, Schofield thinks it shouldn't be a problem, as long as teachers are included in the implementation. Deal released a statement Tuesday afternoon, pledging to talk with educators before moving forward.

"As governor, I will convene teachers, parents, elected officials and education leaders from the 26 school districts involved to assure that Race to the Top funds are implemented effectively, so that we capitalize on our successes and implement them elsewhere in Georgia," he said. "... I will work with all stakeholders in education to conduct reviews of this program so that it achieves its original goals and remains an autonomous function of the state of Georgia without federal strings attached."

 

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