Feds offering millions — but schools leery of requirements
By Jenette Sturges firstname.lastname@example.org June 6, 2012 9:20PM
Sixth-graders Giselle Lechuga (left) and Erika Jaramillo read at Otter Creek Elementary School in Elgin in 2011. District U46 are trying to decide if the requirements of Race to the Top funds would fit U46's own improvement plan. | File~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 8, 2012 6:57PM
The U.S. Department of Education is laying millions of dollars on the table again this year in the Race to the Top school funding program.
And this time around, individual school districts — rather than whole states — will be allowed to compete for it.
But whether the four Fox Valley school districts that meet the requirements will take them up on the offer is still up in the air.
In late May, the U.S. Department of Education announced that school districts would be allowed to compete for more than $400 million, to be split between about 20 large, low-income school districts nationwide. Awards for winning districts will range between $15 million and $25 million.
But not every eligible school district in the Fox Valley will be lining up at the start for this particular race, because of concerns about rules attached to the federal program.
“While we have applied for this funding in the past, we are not going to apply this time,” said Allison Strupeck, spokeswoman for Carpentersville-area Community Unit School District 300.
Strupeck said the primary concern for District 300 revolves around how school districts are asked to structure teacher evaluations and where funds could be allocated.
“Our understanding is that any funds that we might be awarded under (Race to the Top) would need to directly support those schools with at least 40 percent of the students living in poverty ... which includes seven schools in D300,” she said.
That would include changes such as incorporating student performance into teachers’ evaluations.
“We do not want a situation in D300 in which a few of our schools have a different evaluation process for their teachers than the rest of our schools,” Strupeck said.
‘What are strings?’
The East Aurora, West Aurora and Elgin U46 districts also are eligible for the Race to the Top contest, which is restricted to districts of at least 2,500 students with 40 percent or more students on free or reduced-lunch plans.
And while spokesmen said each district was considering seeking the Race to the Top money, each had similar concerns about the strings that could come attached to those millions of federal dollars.
“A really important consideration is whether we can do it, what’s the process for applying and are there any obligations that go along with it that would be insurmountable hurdles,” said Mike Chapin, spokesman for the West Aurora School District. “What are the strings attached, and how costly are those strings?”
The district-level Race to the Top competition is centered on individualized classroom instruction and closing achievement gaps between groups of students, according to the Department of Education.
Districts will be able to design their own plan for customizing the classroom experience and helping under-performing students succeed. But some of the more controversial components of every Race to the Top competition — such as teacher evaluations tied to student performance and an emphasis on data and testing — will be included in the district-level competition.
Districts also would be allowed to concentrate the dollars on certain subsets of students, either in particular schools or grade levels.
Winning districts will be expected to change their instruction to meet the needs of every student’s learning abilities, and teachers will be expected to use real-time data to adapt lessons and individualize instruction.
Fitting local needs
Some of the exact details won’t be completely clear until July when applications become available. But each district already is assessing what it does know about the program, and how that fits with their already-established plans.
Tony Sanders, chief of staff in U46, called the classroom-level changes to Race to the Top “exciting.”
But, Sanders said, the second-largest school district in Illinois has not yet decided whether it will apply for the funding.
“I know we have an internal group looking at the application and determining whether it fits with our ongoing direction in Destination 2015,” he said, referring to the district’s five-year accountability plan that already includes targets for college readiness and closing the achievement gap. “If it does, I imagine we would file for Race to the Top.”
That is a common theme among the Fox Valley districts — they hope the federal program will support their own goals for their schools and students, rather than forcing districts to change to the whims of a federal model.
“Personalizing the classroom experience, closing the achievement gap, and focusing on making sure our students are prepared for college and careers — those are already priorities for us,” said East Aurora spokesman Clayton Muhammad.
Of the four Fox Valley school districts that would be eligible for the funds, East Aurora was the only district that said it definitely was planning to apply.
Muhammad said the Race to the Top application process was a “natural extension” of work already being done by the district’s school improvement team, and that even the process of applying can be a beneficial.
“That process will allow you to plan, to be reflective, to see where you are now and where you’re going to go in future,” he said. “And if the money becomes available, we want to make sure our application is on the table for consideration.”