The U.S. Department of Education is providing $120 million in grants to five school groups for a variety of pilot programs, including laptops for students, combination associate degrees and high school diplomas, and programs that help students move at their own pace.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan on said these pilot programs are aimed at improving learning and teaching at the schools. Both student and educators will benefits from the programs, according to Philip Elliott of The Associated Press.
The Race to the Top money is part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package from 2009. More than 200 school districts applied for the grants. This is the second year the Education Department provided funds directly to local schools to implement their own improvement plans aligning to the administration's goals, including linking student test scores with teacher evaluations.
So far, the program has distributed $4 billion to states and local districts. Houston Independent School District and a consortium of 18 districts gathered under the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative received $30 million each.
In Arkansas, Springdale School District will receive $25.9 million and a consortium of four rural districts led by South Carolina's Clarendon County School District 2 is getting almost $25 million. In addition, the Education Department awarded $10 million to Clarksdale Municipal School District in Mississippi.
"These are bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will improve both student achievement and educator effectiveness," Duncan said. "The best ideas in education don't come from anyone here in Washington."
"These winners shine a light on the innovative work going on across the country, in urban and suburban and rural school districts to tailor and to individualize education for all students," Duncan added.
The Education Department's grants were awarded based on the schools' plan to improve teacher effectiveness, prepare students for life after high school and address specific challenges in their districts, including high absenteeism or low graduation rates.
The grants, which will be spread over four years, also set aside money for improving schools' technologies and teaching educators how to customize curriculum based on students' interests.
"We don't want to teach everybody the same. We don't believe that one size fits all," said John Tindal, superintendent of the Clarendon district. "This will enable us and enable our teachers to change their format and increase the technology among our students. We understand technology is the way to go if we're going to enhance education in our rural communities."
Springdale School District in Arkansas will use money to help improve graduation rates by tailoring classrooms to "allow its youngsters move at their own pace," according to Superintendent Jim Rollins., who noted that a high school diploma alone shouldn't be the best they aim for.
Houston Independent School District will use money to continue its program to give every high school student a laptop and expand its effort to allow students to earn associates degrees before graduating from high school, Superintendent Terry Grier said.
The district's goal is for 2,000 students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree each year.