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Friday, January 15th, 2010

Area schools applying for federal grant

By Daily Standard Staff

Parkway, Fort Recovery, Celina and New Knoxville are the only school districts in the area to seek a new federal grant called "Race To The Top" (RTTT) that one superintendent said could bring in up to $90,000 over a 4-year period.
Celina schools sought support for its application but were unable to get the required agreement of the Celina teachers union. Although Celina Schools Superintendent Matt Miller submitted an application anyway as a sign of support for the RTTT, he acknowledges it likely will be rejected.
Deadlines for letters of interest were due in Columbus last week. The state will make application to Washington D.C. by Tuesday.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, $4.35 billion is available to states through RTTT, the largest discretionary spending in the history of the U.S. Department of Education.
The grant awards will filter through the states, who will retain half and distribute half to eligible school districts.
Ohio could receive as much as $400 million in the form of competitive grants that reward and incite states to achieve reform in four areas: standards and assessment; data systems; teachers and leaders; and low achievement.
"I know some other districts' teachers have not been willing (to pursue) the Race To The Top money because some of the 30 points (to be met)," said Parkway superintendent Greg Puthoff. "So far, statewide, 450 districts have signed up for the $400 million that Ohio may receive. It is a competitive grant, so we don't know what anyone will receive, but it's possible Parkway could receive up to $90,000 over a 4-year period."
The Parkway Education Association signed off on the grant application, which required the signatures of the superintendent, the board president and the head of the teachers' union.
About one-third of the state's school districts did not apply, often because the teachers' unions were opposed.
"It's a trust factor, I think," Puthoff said. "I think what scares them is that the (grant qualifications) are based on state test scores, like the Value Added (which the state uses to measure a student's knowledge growth) ... But teacher evaluations and kids' test scores are just part of it ... I told our teachers it's not the state that will determine if they will be hired back. It's the superintendent and the board."
Sophia Rodriguez, president of the teachers' organization at Coldwater Exempted Village School District, said there are numerous reasons why teachers are not champions of the Race To The Top Grant.
"One was the amount of money for Coldwater, which was at the max - $11,000, due to Title One funds and there's not even a guarantee of that. How would that be divided and how beneficial would that be to the students," she told the newspaper Thursday morning.
Another sticking point for the Celina teachers' union was using evaluation results for consideration in promotions and retention of the teaching staff, as Puthoff alluded to. Using the Value Added system in deciding if a teacher stays isn't a positive factor in her view.
"We have due process, if we sign that process is gone," she said.
Rodriguez believes the challenge for a lot of districts was mainly because the grant includes criteria based on test results. "We have very highly qualified teachers who deserve more than a test score," she said.
The Celina Education Association (CEA) chose not to sign for multiple reasons, a decision that Miller said derails the school's chance of receiving thousands of dollars.
"I understand that our proposal will undoubtedly be rejected. However, I feel that the possibilities of what this grant could have done for education reform in my district as important," Miller wrote in a letter to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).
But CEA President Wally Ellinger questioned whether the cost-benefit ration justified commitment to the grant process.
"There are literally hundreds of vague regulations and expectations that would require substantial changes to our way of doing things," he wrote in a letter to the newspaper. "That translates into revamping the contract recently agreed to by the Celina Board of Education and the CEA in order to meet what the federal government calls 'grant work requirements.'"
According to Michael Dougherty of the ODE, substantial financial and human resources will accompany participation in RTTT.
"What is being asked ... is difficult, uncertain in some respects and sure to require resources beyond what you currently utilize," Dougherty wrote in a letter.
Miller thought Celina would have been in line for at least $125,000 if it had secured Ellinger's signature and the support of the teachers' union.
Staff at Celina schools already practice some of the state requirements attached to the grant dollars, such as professional development, Miller said.
And those requirements the school isn't following should be implemented anyway, he added.
But Ellinger - who says the CEA was asked to sign on with less than a week to study it - wonders what happens once the money is gone.
"When grant money dries up, we will be left with agreements and innovations that we have been pushed toward in order to get the money," he wrote.
Miller admitted that timing was a problem but says all participating schools have 90 days to review grant stipulations before a final commitment.
"We had a 90-day-window to pull out of the grant if we didn't think it met the needs of the district," he said.
Some superintendents across the state believe teacher associations are reluctant to participate because the new regulations would further base teacher evaluations on test scores, Miller said.
"This is the beginning of how standardization of education is going to happen across the nation," Miller says.
One of the requirements for state dollars is the commitment of schools to conduct evaluations of all teachers and principals within a comprehensive performance assessment system that includes standards-based observation, measures of student growth and other varied evaluation formats aligned with state criteria.
"Just one of the many proposed changes is linking student test scores and/or value-added data to high stakes decisions," Ellinger wrote. "The research is far from conclusive in support of the use of such information as valid for making judgments about schools."
Although there are many unknowns, Miller said he would have liked to try for tens of thousands of dollars.
"I think it's worth the opportunity to apply in light of making reductions to the staff," Miller said.
But Ellinger believes the grant could mandate changes that would dismantle and manipulate a good school system.
"We are not opposed to change, and we have been making substantial systemic changes in Celina, but change needs to be our change, not change crammed down our throats from on high in order to latch onto a temporary pot of money," Ellinger wrote.
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