DONNA, December 11 - IDEA Public Schools has been awarded $29 million from the federal government after winning a competition Gov. Rick Perry did not want Texas to participate in.
To win the funds, school districts had to draw up plans for individualized classroom instruction aimed at closing achievement gaps and preparing each student for college and career. School districts with more than 2,500 students could enter the competition, provided at least 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunches.
“We are thrilled to be named a Race to the Top District. This is very exciting for the thousands of students IDEA serves throughout the state of Texas,” said Tom Torkelson, founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools.
IDEA Public Schools was selected among 372 applicants and is one of 16 nationwide winners. They are the one of two districts in the state of Texas to be chosen. The other Texas winners are Harmony Public Schools.
“We will use this award to further the success of our individualized learning academic programs for elementary students and college prep students,” Torkelson explained. This will allow us to continue our work in closing the achievement gap by providing all students with access to a more rigorous college prep education that will ensure that we send 100 percent of our students to and through college.”
Initiatives planned under this award, Torkelson said, include: a summer program for math acceleration for college prep students; the development of additional tools for data analysis to improve real-time student interventions; increased access to individualized professional development opportunities for teachers; and, enhanced community engagement efforts to provide social and emotional support and prepare students to arrive at school ready to learn each day.
Torkelson said IDEA Public Schools has worked closely with parents, teachers, students and community members to fine tune its application. “Without the support of our great community, this award would not have been possible,” said Torkelson. “We actively engaged our various partners for their input, and based on their feedback, we developed the tenants of our programmatic proposal. Their collaboration was invaluable.”
The U.S. Department of Education launched Race to the Top in 2009 as a way of encouraging education reforms. The idea was states would compete for the funding. In 2010, Perry said Texas would not participate, claiming the federal government was interfering in education. So, the Obama Administration opened the competition to individual school districts.
Unlike Perry, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa was a big supporter of Race to the Top. He first championed the competition at UTPA’s HESTEC in 2009. In a statement, Hinojosa said McAllen ISD was also awarded funds under Race for the Top, in conjunction with KIPP D.C. of Washington, D.C.
“I am extremely pleased and very proud that our schools in the Rio Grande Valley are leading the nation in finding innovative ways to educate and inspire students and teachers. I congratulate Founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools Tom Torkelson and Chief of Schools JoAnn Gama for their leadership that is transforming the lives of our students,” said Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, Texas.
Hinojosa said he also wanted to congratulate McAllen ISD Superintendent Dr. James Ponce for pursuing and developing plans that give their students access to quality education. “Improving student achievement is key to their programs. Instilling STEM field studies and providing high-tech tools are essential in creating a path to future careers that will keep the United States competitive in the global market,” Hinojosa said.
In 2010, Perry explained he opposed Race to the Top because states would have to adopt national standards in education. “We must not surrender control to the federal bureaucracy,” Perry said, in an op-ed about the competition. He said the Obama Administration had “put a target on the backs of Texas leaders, taxpayers and employers.” He did not seek to block individual school districts in Texas from competing.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan disagrees with Perry’s assessment.
“Race to the Top sparked as much reform in some states that didn’t receive funds as in those that did – a trend we want to see continued with the Race to the Top-District competition, where the number of strong district applicants was greater than the funding we had available,” Duncan said. “We want districts to keep moving on these blueprints for reform to transform the learning environment and ultimately prepare every student for college and their career.”
Duncan also said school districts have been hungry to drive reform at the local level. Now, he said, winners can “empower their school leaders to pursue innovative ideas where they have the greatest impact: in the classroom.”
Duncan added that Race to the Top-District grantees have shown “tremendous leadership though developing plans that will transform the learning environment and enable students to receive a personalized, world-class education.”
In all, 55 school districts across 11 states and Washington D.C. will share nearly $400 million under Race to the Top 2012. According the rules of the competition winners must “support locally developed plans to personalize and deepen student learning, directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student to succeed in college and their careers.”
According to the Department of Education, the Race to the Top competition for school districts builds on the success of the Race to the Top state grant program by “supporting classroom-level reform efforts that encourage transformative change within schools.” Applicants from all districts were invited to “demonstrate how they can personalize education for all students and provide school leaders and teachers with tools that help them best meet their students’ needs.” In developing their plans, districts were asked to collaborate with educators, parents, and both public and private organizational leaders to ensure their vision was supported by key community stakeholders.
The Department of Education says Race to the Top-District plans are tailored to meet the needs of local communities and feature a variety of strategies, including: using technology to personalize learning for each student; giving students opportunities to learn beyond the traditional school day and environment; supporting students’ transitions throughout their education, including from high school to college and careers; expanding partnerships with community organizations to provide students with targeted social services like crisis intervention, individual counseling and life enrichment opportunities; and providing professional development and coursework options to deepen learning in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“Since the day he took office, President Obama has been laser-focused on the goal of ensuring that every child has access to a quality education,” said Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz. “Race to the Top exemplifies this commitment and marks an historic moment in American education, raising the bar and improving outcomes for schools across the United States.”