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Georgia crosses finish line in education 'race'

By Curt Yeomans and Johnny Jackson

cyeomans@news-daily.com

State and local education officials were giddy with excitement on Tuesday after news came down from the U.S. Department of Education that Georgia came out on top in the latest round of the federal government's "Race To The Top" competition.

Georgia is one of 10 winners in the second round of the competition. The other round 2 winners include: The District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Georgia will get $400 million from the federal government, over a four-year period, to implement the state's "Race To The Top" plan, state officials announced.

"I am so pleased that Georgia has been named a winner of 'Race to the Top,'" said Interim State Superintendent of Schools Brad Bryant, in a written statement. "Going for Race to the Top has never been about just the money, but more about further development of our foundation to drive increased student achievement."

The competition is part of a $4 billion grant initiative, that was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The initiative was designed to support innovative school improvement plans for education. Clayton County Public Schools, and Henry County Schools, are among the 26 local school systems that signed on to partner with the state in implementing its "Race To The Top" plan.

According to Gov. Sonny Perdue's office, the money will be used to strengthen traditional and alternative, teacher-and leader-preparation programs; implement a teacher-evaluation system that provides consistent, objective criteria that informs instruction; give performance-based salary increases as rewards to "great teachers and leaders," and generate more teacher support in the classroom.

It will also be used to implement common curricular standards, and internationally benchmarked assessments that were adopted by the State Board of Education in July, according to the governor's office.

"Now the real race begins," said Perdue, in a written statement. "This is truly a unique opportunity to implement a Georgia-created plan that will accelerate our work in improving student achievement."

The reaction from Clayton and Henry school officials was one of jubilation that the state came out a winner in this round of "Race To The Top." Officials in both school districts said the money should help them in their efforts to boost student achievement.

"This is a great day for the state of Georgia, for Clayton County, and for students enrolled in Clayton County Public Schools," said Clayton Schools Spokesman Charles White, in a written statement. "As one of the 26 local school districts partnering with the state, CCPS will work to enhance preparation and support programs for our teachers and school leaders, providing them with the tools to achieve beyond their current exemplary work," White added. "Our ultimate objective is lifting each of our 50,100 students to the academic success they deserve, fully preparing them to compete globally."

Henry Schools Superintendent Michael Surma said his district will need to know how much money it will receive, before he can discuss how it will be spent locally. He was optimistic, however, that the state's "Race To The Top" victory could raise Henry Schools to a new level of quality.

"The most exciting aspect of our participation in this grant is that the key areas of the 'Race to the Top' grant align well with our current areas of focus, to ensure the educational success of our students," Surma said. "This new funding source will assist us in our goal to become one of the best school systems in the state, and will assist our students to attain their goals for the future."

Georgia Department of Education Spokesman Matt Cardoza said 50 percent of the money that the state has won will go to the state level, to implement the state plan. "The other 50 percent will go to the participating districts, but we don't have the formula in place, yet, to determine each district's allocation," he said.

In addition to Clayton and Henry counties, the other school systems who are partnering with the state, include city-wide districts in Atlanta, Carrollton, Gainesville, and Valdosta, and county-wide districts in Ben Hill, Bibb, Burke, Chatham, Cherokee, Dade, DeKalb, Dougherty, Gwinnett, Hall, Jones, Meriwether, Muscogee, Peach, Pulaski, Rabun, Richmond, Rockdale, Spalding, and White counties.

In a written statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the states that won "Race To The Top" grants in the latest round of the competition, for showing a "tremendous amount of leadership and a bold commitment to education reform."

"These states show what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children," said Duncan. "The creativity and innovation in each of these applications is breathtaking. We set a high bar, and these states met the challenge."