More than 9,300 students in Iredell-Statesville Schools will move into the age of digital education with the help of a $20 million federal grant the district won this week.
The Race to the Top grant will pay for a “blended education” program that mixes online and traditional teaching in ISS middle and high schools, with each student having a laptop or tablet to work on.
“It’s going to be amazing for kids. That’s the heart of it,” said ISS spokeswoman Dawn Creason.
The Carolinas feature prominently in the latest federal effort to improve public education.
When the U.S. Department of Education invited school districts to submit proposals for tailoring education to individual students, 372 grant applications came in.
Tuesday the department announced 16 winners sharing about $400 million, including ISS and Guilford County ($30 million) in North Carolina and Charleston County Schools in South Carolina ($19.4 million).
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Union County, Cabarrus County and Hickory were among the 22 applicants from North Carolina.
For years, the federal government tried to drive education reform with the No Child Left Behind Act, which set a series of penalties for high-poverty schools that didn’t hit test-score targets.
Those penalties ranged from offering students tutoring and allowing parents to choose higher-performing schools to closing schools or replacing faculty.
That approach is fading from the scene, as North Carolina and most other states have gotten exemptions.
The Obama administration has used Race to the Top grants to entice states and districts to turn around low-performing schools, improve teacher effectiveness and upgrade the rigor of lessons. North Carolina was awarded a $400 million, four-year state Race to the Top grant in 2010.
The school-district competition is the next step.
“Districts have been hungry to drive reform at the local level, and now these winners can empower their school leaders to pursue innovative ideas where they have the greatest impact: in the classroom,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday.
The ISS plan calls for using online instruction to help students pursue their academic interests and master material at their own pace. Teachers will work with small groups to ensure that students stay on track and to flesh out the online lessons.
Mooresville, an Iredell County town that has its own school district, already has emerged as a national leader in digital instruction. Creason says ISS leaders have been watching progress there and in nearby Union County, and planning their own strategy.
“This has been on our radar for the last 10 years, but we haven’t had money to throw at it,” she said.
Students probably won’t get the devices until 2014, she said. Educators and officials will spend the coming year planning and preparing.
“We know it’s going to have to be a slow, deliberate process,” Creason said.
The Race to the Top proposal covers ISS’ nine middle schools and six of its seven high schools. Lake Norman High, the district’s lowest-poverty high school, was omitted because the grant requires that at least 40 percent of students served come from low-income families, Creason said.
ISS will look for other grants and donations to ensure the Lake Norman students have digital devices and online opportunities, Creason said: “They’re not going to be left out in the cold.”
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