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Surma informed educators about federal competition

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

"It's people like you, who are leaders in the teaching core," Henry County Schools Superintendent Michael Surma told top educators in the Henry County School System on Saturday.

"We know teachers are the key to what students know, and what they will be able to do," he said, during a ceremony hosted by State Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Jonesboro) to honor the school system's teachers and employees of the year.

He also explained the possible local impact of the state's involvement in the federal "Race to the Top" competition, and gave an update on the state's progress in earning available federal dollars through that effort.

The Race to the Top challenge is the U.S. Department of Education's $4.35 billion effort to re-shape the nation's education system to develop more competitive students. On March 4, Georgia was named one of 16 finalists in the competition, which evaluates states' educational data systems, college-and-career readiness, and academic curricula and assessments.

Twenty-two other Georgia school systems, including Clayton County, could benefit from Race to the Top funding, according to Surma, who said funding will likely be based on a school system's Title I status.

"We're the 12th-largest school system by percentage of Title I schools ... we stand to get about $400,000" to put toward advancing specific programs, if the state is a winner, Surma said.

"I think the most important thing is that we are in the running for Race to the Top," added Sen. Buckner.

The winner of the challenge is expected to be announced in early April, according to Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. Brantley said Georgia could receive as much as $462 million overall, if the state is a winner in the challenge.

State-wide, funding would be spent on implementing, or advancing, several of the state's initiatives, he said, noting that the funding cannot be used to fill generic funding gaps in education.

Brantley said funding will likely go to help improve the state's Student Data System, used to keep across-district, universal student records; create an Office of School Turnaround that will assist the state's under-performing schools; and advance the state's performance-pay initiative, which rewards high-performing educators.

Early last week, representatives from each state that is a finalist traveled to the nation's capital to interview with panels of education experts from around the country. Brantley said Georgia's delegation -- which also included Gov. Sonny Perdue, Gwinnett County Schools Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, Director of the Governor's Office of Student Achievement Kathleen Mathers, and the Governor's Policy Director Erin Hames -- met with a panel on March 17.

"It went very, very well," Brantley said. "We feel like we'll be a very strong contender. [However,] what we don't know is where in the 16 finalists we are ranked. Hopefully, we'll get some good news in April."

The state's school superintendent, Kathy Cox, felt that the interview went well, said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

"She said they think they answered the questions well and left feeling good about the interview," Cardoza said. "No one got stumped by any questions, and everyone played an important role in the conversation."