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Georgia finalist for education grants, again

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

State officials announced Tuesday that Georgia was selected as one of 19 finalists in the second round of the federal "Race to the Top" competition for education funding.

Clayton and Henry counties are among the 26 local school districts that have signed on to partner with the state in implementing Georgia's Race to the Top school improvement plan, according to state officials.

If Georgia is selected, officials said, the state could receive up to $400 million from the U.S. Department of Education, over a four-year period, to implement its plans for improvement.

"I am pleased that Georgia has been named a finalist again for Race to the Top funding," said State Superintendent of Schools Brad Bryant. "Our selection validates the great work Georgia has been engaged in for many years."

Charles White, spokesman for Clayton's school district, echoed those sentiments. "We are excited to learn that Georgia has been named a finalist in the second round of Race to the Top grants," he said. "The state's proposal focuses on improving student academic achievement, and is closely aligned to the strategic plan that is guiding the work throughout Clayton County Public Schools. We also applaud the proposal's emphasis on providing highly qualified leadership in our school-level administration and, specifically, in our classrooms."

The Race to the Top funding is part of a $4 billion grant initiative included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, to support innovative school improvement plans in education.

"Henry County Schools would be in a positive position to be a participant in the grant, if received," said Henry County Schools Superintendent Michael Surma. "The initiatives of the grant are also areas that we are already working on in our school system."

Surma said the school district's goals include making substantial gains in student achievement; improving high school graduation rates; and preparing students for success in college and careers. He said he believes the grant would provide funds to support quality professional development among educators as well.

The ARRA grant initiative targets innovation in four areas of education reform, including: adopting common standards and assessments that prepare students to successfully enter college or the workforce; building data systems that measure student achievement and inform educators about student needs; maintaining and expanding a pool of talented educators; and turning around the state's lowest-achieving schools.

"I think the U.S. Department of Education realizes that Georgia already has traction on the four standards that they want to address," said Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, an Atlanta-based, non-profit, student achievement research organization. Dolinger said one area the state needs to focus on is teacher and leader effectiveness.

Recommendations from the U.S. Department of Education, state officials revealed, include applying more focus on strengthening traditional and alternative preparation programs for teachers and leaders; supporting teachers more effectively in the classroom; evaluating teachers and leaders with consistent and objective criteria, and rewarding high-achieving teachers and leaders with performance-based monetary bonuses.

"While the state still must complete a successful interview with the federal grant reviewers, this announcement is proof that our public education system is on the right track, and our Race to the Top plan will allow us to focus on additional reforms that will further improve student achievement," Dolinger said. "I believe we are well-positioned, now, to ultimately be awarded the funding later this year."

Georgia finished third in Round 1of the Race to the Top competition. Delaware and Tennessee were awarded in Round 1, out of 40 states and the District of Columbia, which submitted applications, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The department estimates that Round 2 winners will be announced in late August or early September.

"As the third-place finisher in Phase I, I believe Georgia is in an incredibly strong position to win this phase of the competition," said Gov. Sonny Perdue. "This grant is an opportunity to further align funding and state education policies with our desired outcome of improved student achievement."