In late May, all public schools and charter schools in the United States learned about a new grant competition and opportunity for school districts. United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, announced The Race to the Top District (RTT-D) competition. The RTT-D competition is a competitive grant designed to support bold, locally directed improvements in teaching and learning that will directly improve student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The cornerstone of the grant is the development of an individual learning plan for each student that matches a student's goals and dreams with specific learning outcomes in the school. Additionally, a key element of the grant is significant investments in teacher training and staff development.
In order to apply for the grant, school districts needed to serve at least 2,000 students and have at least 40 percent of the students served at or near the poverty level. While Marshall Public Schools serves over 2,000 students every day in our educational programming, the student population in Marshall is approximately 35 percent at or near the poverty level. Therefore, the Marshall Public Schools looked for other school districts in which to partner in order to apply for this grant. Through several conversations with other educational leaders in the region, Marshall Public Schools developed a collaborative partnership with the neighboring school districts of Lakeview and Minneota as well as the Southwest Conference schools of Pipestone Area Schools, Jackson County Central Schools, and the Windom Area Schools. The six school districts agreed to name the consortium the Buffalo Ridge Educational Alliance and jointly signed a memorandum of understanding to agree to work with the local teaching staff and the United States Department of Education to meet the requirements of the grant. Collectively, the six districts that form the Buffalo Ridge Educational Alliance serve over 6,500 students with nearly 41 percent of the students at or near the poverty level. As a result of the size of the consortium, the six districts are submitting a RTT-D grant application for nearly $22 million.
As I have talked with community members, business leaders, and school staff members about the grant, I have been asked what the grant would require of the district. There are three key components that the Buffalo Ridge Educational Alliance incorporated into the grant application to fulfill the requirements of the grant.
Personal Learning Plans In order to fulfill the requirements of the grant, each student in the district would have a personal learning plan. The plan would be developed at the beginning of each school year through a focused conversation involving the student, the parents, counselors, and even possible community mentors. The learning plans would support student growth and development based on the specific student need and limited only by the personal motivation of the child.
Technology Rich Environment The six districts agreed that technology must be an essential part of the personal learning plans. Grant funding and resources would be utilized to create a robust technology environment where each classroom in the school would have wi-fi access. Each student in the district would have a personal device, such as an iPad, that would house a digital portfolio for each student's personal learning plan. The digital environment would allow for enhanced student learning opportunities through access to digital content in the schools. The technology rich environment would support the development of critical skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking that are necessary for success in the world today.
Staff Development In order to support teachers in these efforts, a great deal of emphasis in the grant is placed on teacher training and support. Working together with the other five districts, teachers can learn from other schools and districts as well as each other and ensure that we are incorporating the very best practices into our classrooms each day. Teachers are the single greatest influence in a student's academic performance. Therefore, in order to ensure that our students are receiving the very best, the Buffalo Ridge Educational Alliance grant application would provide support and training for every teacher across the consortium.
The grant application was submitted on October 26 to the United States Department of Education. The anticipated date for an award announcement is in early December. As you can imagine, this is a highly competitive grant with only 15 to 25 awards being granted nationally.
However, despite the competitive nature of the grant, we know that as we look to the future, we must continue to make strides to improve and revamp our educational system. The Race to the Top District application allows us to take a step forward. The educational system of today utilizes an agrarian based calendar, with an industrial age design. Those models worked when schools were charged with creating effective industrial aged workers for an economy that required industrial-aged thinking. However, the skills needed for success in the complex world and economy of today require the use of different skill sets. The ability to think critically, to be entrepreneurial, to be self-motivated, to communicate and collaborate effectively, and to be creative are all skills of the new 21st century economy. The Race to the Top District application provides a framework as well as resources to help our six school districts move forward and not only survive, but thrive as 21st century school districts.