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December 20, 2014

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Education:

With requirements clarified, CCSD now will seek Race to the Top funds

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Dwight Jones, superintendent of the Clark County School District.

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After reconsideration, the Clark County School District will join in the Race to the Top with the hope of gaining a multimillion-dollar federal grant.

In July, the U.S. Department of Education opened $400 million in Race to the Top funds to individual school districts. Nearly 900 districts across the district are expected to apply, with 109 of them anticipated to apply for the same $5 million to $40 million category the School District is pursuing. One of the requirements of the competitive grant program mandates that applying districts create and institute a “personalized learning plan” for about 10,000 students expected to participate.

School Board members initially balked. They argued that creating an individualized education plan for so many students would take immense resources — additional staff and technology.

There was also an expectation that the district would have to scale up the pilot program to some 309,000 students in the entire district, which School Board members argued would be nearly impossible. Furthermore, for all that effort, the School District may receive just $6 million.

“My concern is that a grant, once awarded, becomes a contract,” School Board member Erin Cranor said at the time. “Sounds like selling your soul for $6 million.”

Others, such as School Board member Deanna Wright, urged the district to continue on its current path, allowing other districts to “mud-wrestle for $6 million.”

However, after speaking with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over a conference call, Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones received clarification on the grant requirements.

Instead of having to create an individualized plan for every student, school districts need only create a “personalized learning environment,” which Jones argued was what the School District had been doing all along.

Starting last school year, all Las Vegas students were given “growth model” data, which gauges how much they improve on standardized tests from year to year. At-risk students also were targeted for additional support, such as individualized mentoring and academic boot camps.

“The Race to the Top now aligns with the vision of the district,” Jones said. “Because of that alignment, we’re considering applying and using the funds to move toward that vision faster.”

That change from a personalized learning plan to a personalized learning environment assuaged the once-skeptical School Board members.

“That’s what changed my mind about it,” School Board member Chris Garvey said. “Sometimes we have to walk away from money when it has too many strings, but with clear guidelines, we can continue to do what we’re doing. I think we have a good chance (at winning the grant).”

However, winning the grant hinges on gaining support from the local teachers union, especially on the creation of a new teacher evaluation system, another grant requirement. Meeting these grant requirements may be complicated by the School District’s labor dispute over teachers’ contracts.

The two sides are undergoing arbitration. Race to the Top grant money cannot go toward teacher salaries but to support classroom instruction such as technology and programs, officials said.

“I hope teachers see this is a good way forward,” Cranor said.

Wright agreed, adding the teachers union had been cooperative in the past on other grant programs, such as the "turnaround" School Improvement Grants.

“They want good things for kids,” Wright said. “They also want more money and resources to go to the classroom.”

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