Augusta school officials ponder how to replace Race to the Top funding

 

When Georgia was awarded a $400 million slice of the federal Race to the Top grant in 2010, it was dispersed to Rich­mond County and 25 other needy districts with one promise: It wouldn’t last forever.

Locally, the four-year grant paid for $15 million in reform efforts that educators could only dream of before – thousands of hours of teacher training, tutoring software for students, computer labs, online credit recovery, summer academies for struggling students and 17 key people including graduation coaches and a data analyst.

With the federal funds set to run out this summer, educators are struggling to figure out how to continue these programs and initiatives without a way to pay for them. Administrators hope some of the more effective pieces of Race to the Top can be covered by the district’s general fund, but with a budget already crippled by state funding cuts, finding extra cash will be challenging.

“Yes, it’s scary to lose the money,” said Rosemary Vaughn, the district’s Race to the Top program manager. “Over the last four years we’ve grown, we’ve learned, we’ve done professional development, we’ve had such success with our (credit recovery system). If we couldn’t have done any of these things, where would we be today? Now we just have to continue to sustain our teachers and work with our lowest-achieving schools. I’m just not sure how that’s going to look exactly.”

School officials are beginning discussions for the 2014-15 budget and should have a preliminary plan in February, Controller Gene Spires said.

He said he is not expecting to receive back any of the $50 million in funding the state has cut over the past decade. The budget this year faced a $23 million shortfall, and Spires said he sees little opportunity to add new expenses.

“That void we have avoided is on our horizon now,” he said. “My best guess at this juncture is that fiscal year ’15 is going to be just as difficult, if not more difficult, than fiscal year ’14, and part of the reason is some of the things being borne now by Race to the Top is going to go away.”

Over the past four years, almost every teacher and school has been touched by Race to the Top initiatives. The programs include:

• Millions spent on training teachers in science, math, social studies and special education and instructing them how to use online software purchased for tutoring students. The money provided stipends to pay teachers to work on Saturdays and after school and to pay substitutes to cover classes for training during the school day.

Debbie Alexander, the assistant superintendent for instruction, said some professional learning can continue with Title I funds, federal money awarded to low-income schools.

Forty-one of the district’s 56 schools receive Title I money, but Director Audrey Spry said the county as a whole has gotten less money over the years and that school budgets are tight.

Less money is also being spent on training teachers locally. According to data from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Richmond County spent almost $348,000 less on training between 2009 and 2013.

• More than $1 million paid for Universal Scree­­ners software, which tells teachers exactly which concept a student is struggling with so he or she can receive extra intervention.

• $130,000 in Teaching Causes Learning awards, which gave teachers money to buy technology or supplies for projects in the classroom

• $200,000 established summer transition academies for fifth- and eighth-grade students who failed the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The academies allowed them to make up the tests and move on to the next grade. This year, 87 percent of the students from summer 2013 academies are on track for graduation, according to Cheryl Jones, the assistant superintendent for elementary schools.

• Seventeen positions that will have no funding source come summer. These include Vaughn’s Race to the Top manager position, a data analyst, four administration managers, a site safety manager, a positive behavior intervention monitor and nine graduation coaches.

• $700,000 for credit recovery software that students use to make up classes they fail so they can stay on track to graduation. More than 1,600 courses were made up over the past 2½ years alone.

“That’s one of those things that, to me, is top on our priority list to keep,” Alexander said. “We know how effective that program in credit recovery has been to helping students graduate.”

• Funds for Rich­mond County to develop an evaluation system for teachers and administrators, which was tested in the district and in other Race to the Top districts in 2011. All districts statewide will be required to use the evaluations by the 2014-15 year.

• Training and almost a half-million dollars for implementing the Common Core Geor­gia Performance Standards; $40,000 in signing bonuses for hard-to-staff subjects; and $25,000 for an Aspiring Leaders training program for teachers wanting to become administrators.

 

WHILE THE DISTRICT as a whole was affected by the grant, Butler High and Murphey Middle schools received extra funding for being some of the lowest-achieving schools needing reform. Each school was given a modern computer lab, extra stipends for teacher training, money for Saturday schooling and their own summer school academies.

Butler Principal Greg Thompson said he hopes other funding sources will be able to save several positions created by Race to the Top. Butler received a graduation coach, an extra assistant principal, a positive behavior monitor, a site safety monitor and a data clerk.

The grant also paid for Butler to have its own summer school and for buses to pick students up so they wouldn’t have to find transportation to the district’s centralized summer academy.

“For our kids to get to other schools was hard,” Thompson said. “Having our own summer school program has been huge.”

Murphey Principal Veronica Bolton said training given to teachers was game-changing. The grant established workshops for new teachers and gave training to veterans on a monthly basis.

However, it also helped establish habits that will be sustained. The grant required the school to add a 30-minute period for enrichment, which will continue without the funding. Bolton also said all the techniques and strategies learned in the trainings will be retaught by staff.

“Money is always beneficial because you’re able to use those resources to really help students, but we didn’t always have Race to the Top and we’ve always done what we needed to do,” she said. “We’re just positive people, so we’ll be OK.”

While it’s true many of these initiatives and opportunities for training will end, Vaughn said the essence of the grant will not. The grant was not about providing a funding source, but about laying the groundwork for reform.

The funds put consultants in place to show educators how to do that. It purchased technology that won’t be going away, including $1 million to install wireless Internet in all middle and high schools.

Now, sustaining those changes is in the hands of the educators.

“Race to the Top is different than anything we’ve had before, because it’s a reform,” Vaughn said. “It’s a reform to bring about great change, and the money helped us do that, but now it’s up to us to sustain it.”

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SC districts applying for slice of $400 million in grants in federal Race to the Top competition
Richmond County to apply for more federal school reform funds
Georgia building system to track students from preschool to Ph.D.
U.S. Department of Education says state could lose Race to the Top funding over proposed changes
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