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CMS, other Charlotte-area school districts in race for federal bucks

Oct. 30 is deadline for the 4-year grants ranging from $5 million to $40 million

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other area school districts are competing against one another, and hundreds more across the country, for a piece of nearly $400 million in federal Race to the Top grants.

They are finishing work on applications due by Oct. 30. The four-year grants range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the student population size served by the grant.

For some districts, including those in Union County, Burke County and Hickory, a successful application would represent the single largest competitive grant they ever received.

The U.S. Department of Education expects to award anywhere from 15 to 25 grants nationwide. Nearly 900 school districts had initially expressed interest in applying.

The agency previously awarded Race to the Top grants at the state level, and North Carolina was one of the states that received a grant. District awards will be announced before the end of the year.

The grant competition centers on four core areas: rigorous standards and exams; recruitment and retention of effective educators; data systems that measure student growth; and turning around the nation’s lowest-achieving schools. Districts also need to detail plans for “personalized learning environments,” which use teachers and technology to tailor lessons to students’ needs.

Union County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis called the application “one of the two or three hardest things I’ve ever done in my life because it is so detailed.”

The district is seeking a grant in the range from $20 million to $30 million, Ellis said, and would use it to accelerate some changes that already are under way.

Among other uses, Ellis said the funds would help increase Internet hot spots in the community to allow more students access to the Web, improve internships with local companies that are global in scope, and pay for teachers to get master’s degrees in exchange for being placed in at-risk schools for three years.

Don’t expect to hear many details from Burke County Schools until after the deadline, said Assistant Superintendent Milland Bradley. “This is a very highly competitive grant that is pitting school districts against each other,” he said. “So we’re being selfish for our kids” and not disclosing a lot of specifics.

Bradley did say the district is shooting for a grant in the $10 million to $12 million range, and would use the money for such things as expanding career and technical education offerings at the high school level and updating technology and infrastructure for STEM classes – science, technology, engineering and math.

CMS also did not want to detail its proposal, which was being finalized last week, said Kelly W. Price, the district’s Race to the Top executive coordinator. CMS is seeking a grant in the $20 million to $30 million range, which, if successful, would be one of the larger competitive grants it has received.

In a recent interview with the Observer, CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison said the grant would target high-performing schools in addition to high-poverty, low-performing ones.

Not every district that expressed initial interest is pursuing the grant. Gaston County Schools decided it did not have enough time to put together a comprehensive proposal, said Lory Morrow, deputy superintendent for instruction.

The Hickory school district is seeking a grant worth about $10 million, spokeswoman Beverly Snowden said. The district would use some of that money to ensure that every student has access to a computer.

Noting that the district has seen at least $5 million in federal and state cuts over the past three years, Snowden said, “If we get $10 million awarded in this economy, it would be an unbelievable dream come true.”

Bell: 704-358-5696
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