Racing to the Top

Posted on 14 January 2010

In the past week, both Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor school districts signed off on a program that may yield the districts thousands of dollars in grant money, but will require them to comply with a set of criteria. This competitive government grant is referred to as the “Race to the Top” (RTTT), and is part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package of which $4.35 billion dollars are earmarked for educational reform. If enough schools sign on, New York will be able to receive up to $700 million in federal grant money, which would be distributed to the state’s eligible schools.

In order for school districts to get a piece of this grant they were asked to sign off on a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Thereafter, money would be allotted to states and then to districts based on how much initial support they showed for the grant. Each district will be judged on a 500-point system of which 138 points are linked to teacher performance, and 45 points are linked to whether teachers’ unions or other school organizations are signing off on the MOU, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. A loss in points means a potential loss of grant money to area school districts.

The criteria include the adoption of global standards and assessments, improvement in professional development of teachers and principals, the linking of student performance with teacher’s evaluations and advancement and the improvement of low performing school districts.

“There is quite a bit of controversy about these assurances, especially concerning the fourth one,” said Bridgehampton School Superintendent Dr. Diane Youngblood at last Wednesday’s school board meeting. “How will they measure low performance? And also teachers fear and are worried that their performance will be judged by student performance.”

Bridgehampton may stand to receive about $30,000 in grant money, which would account for about 30 percent of its title 1 budget, according to board member Lillian Tyree.

The MOU was sent out to all district superintendents in late December with a January 8 deadline, which was later extended to January 13. As of yesterday, 846 school districts had signed on to the MOU, of which 146 are charter schools, representing around 94 percent of all districts in the state.

According to the state department of education, as of last Friday, Bridgehampton, Montauk, Southampton, Springs and Shelter Island Schools had sent in their MOU applications. A state representative added that East Hampton’s application hadn’t been received yet.

According to Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, school board president Walter Wilcoxen and he signed and faxed the MOU to the state department of education on Friday, January 8. Dr. Gratto said they signed the MOU in order to be eligible to receive the grant funds, but added the details of the program itself are yet to be refined by the state. Of the four main criteria of the program, he noted the school already has standards in place that comply with these proposed regulations.

Dr. Gratto added that Sag Harbor is a high achieving district but would most likely qualify for extra funds for its title I program. This is a federal program aimed at students who need extra help in reading and math. Around 40 students are currently enrolled in the program, added Dr. Gratto. If approved for funding, the district could receive between $6,000 to $7,000 for this specific program. ?

He pointed out, however, “the state hasn’t set up any accountability … they have set general parameters. I don’t know if they will accept the verification of what we are already doing.”

Dr. Gratto added that because the school is a high performing and relatively wealthy school district, Pierson often isn’t awarded additional grant monies besides those the school is already entitled to. ?Although there was a slot on the memorandum of understanding for the union president to sign, TASH leader Eileen Kochanasz refrained from lending her signature to the application. Dr. Gratto said the school first learned of the application on December 30 and that it was due by Friday, January 8. Kochanasz maintains she didn’t receive the application until January 7. In an email Kochanasz sent to a local parent, she explained the document regarding the grant was extensive and she reached out to NYSUT, TASH’s state union representatives, to “gather some information about the grant in a much quicker fashion.” ?

Kochanasz wrote that she learned, “Only the superintendent must sign for the district to participate in the state application … [and] before signing the application the president needed to meet with the officers of the association to carefully study the document in order to weigh the pros and cons as it pertains to our local association.”

Kochanasz said she felt there wasn’t enough time to vet all the details of the grant before signing the application.

In Bridgehampton, Dr. Youngblood eventually signed on with the board’s approval, noting, “I spoke with several area superintendents and several are not signing. One district is worried about lifting the cap on charter schools. Another is not signing because they fear it will force them to open up their teacher negotiations because it will require things of them that are not currently written into their contract. Even the state is being cautious about this.”

Bridgehampton School Board President Elizabeth Kotz commented, “I think this is the start of a conversation that needs to happen. I think it is the first part of stepping away from ‘No Child Left Behind.’ This is my sense of it anyway.”

The winners of phase one of this grant will be notified in April and are expected to comply with the initiatives outlined in the MOU within 90 days as stated in the NYSED website.

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