TyReona Johnson says she was a stellar student until late in elementary school, when she moved from Gary, Ind., to suburban Atlanta and enrolled in the Gwinnett County public schools, one of the country’s best-regarded systems—and where she found the expectations to be a lot higher than in her previous school.
The classwork was much tougher, she said, and she fell so far behind she had to repeat 5th grade, devastating both her and her mother. Over the next few years, TyReona tried hard in school but couldn’t recapture her earlier success. And she hated being teased for being one of the oldest students in the class. She worried that her dream—becoming a lawyer—might never happen.
Now, TyReona, who started the school year in 8th grade at Moore Middle School here, will be able to enroll in high school next fall as a sophomore, and be back in a class with her same age peers for the first time in years.
Her quick academic progress is made possible by a key piece of Georgia’s version of the federal Race to the Top program, in which Georgia was awarded $400 million overall. The state’s Innovation Fund is meant to help schools try out new approaches to get students ready for college, bolster instruction in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—and expand the pipeline of high-quality educators.
Although other parts of Georgia’s Race to the Top implementation have been red-flagged by the U.S. Department of Education, the state’s $19.4 million Innovation Fund is often cited in federal reports as a high point.
The Georgia program, which made its first round of awards in September 2011, has allocated a total of 23 awards in three separate rounds, according to state officials. It was modeled on the Obama administration’s own Investing in Innovation program, which is currently financed at $141.6 million and is intended to scale up promising practices at the district level.
Georgia’s version encourages the school districts to partner with colleges, nonprofit organizations, and businesses with the aim of proliferating “applied” learning across the state, and bolstering teacher quality.
Among the initiatives financed in Georgia so far are a teacher-induction program, STEM charter schools, and an applied-learning program at a school that partners with museums, as well as programs at regular public schools, such as the one in which TyReona, 15, is enrolled.
Moore’s STEP Academy program—which stands for STEM Targeted Educational Program—is modeled largely on the Star Academy program, created by a private company, Pitsco Education, based in Pittsburg, Kan.
The Gwinnett County district has added its own twists. The goal of the program: help students at risk of dropping out master enough math, science, social studies, and language arts that they can essentially compress two academic years into one.
The program uses small classes, typically of fewer than 20 students, and it relies on a mix of online learning and teacher-delivered instruction, along with plenty of hands-on projects.
On a recent afternoon, for example, TyReona and other students put their mastery of geometry to the test by transforming two-dimensional drawings of complicated shapes into larger, three-dimensional plywood models.
Relationships with staff members are also key. The five teachers in Moore Middle School’s STEP program eat lunch with their students every day and don’t get a break from the start of school until the last bell. Not every educator can handle that kind of schedule, said Analisa Wendt, the assistant principal who oversees the STEP program.
It isn’t always a picnic for the students, either.
“I didn’t know that teenagers could get gray hairs,” said Susana Perez, 15, one of the students in the program.
But, so far, it seems as if the effort may pay off: All of the 59 students who completed the Moore program in 2012-13 passed their reading and middle school writing state exams, and 36 passed the math exam.
Moore Middle School is in its second year of the program, which was piloted at nearby Sweetwater Middle School. At Sweetwater in the 2012-13 school year, all students passed the state’s reading and middle school writing exams, and 56 out of 61 students who completed the year passed the state’s math exam. But both programs lost about a dozen students over the course of the 2012-13 school year.
Georgia initially selected just five grantees, including schools, districts, and postsecondary institutions, in the first round of its Innovation Fund out of 81 applicants. Gwinnett County’s initial bid to start the program at Sweetwater was rejected.
But in January of 2012, the district won a little more than $1 million in state Race to the Top funding. That money allowed Gwinnett County to expand the program to the second site, at Moore, as well as help continue the program at Sweetwater. The district has allocated other money—including from private donations—to start a third version, at another school.
It’s not clear just how Moore and Sweetwater will be able to continue the program after the Innovation Fund dollars run out, after the end of the 2014-15 school year, but the district is hoping to find the money, said Debbie Cate, the director of curriculum development and instructional support for the Gwinnett County district.
The most recent Innovation Fund round is focused on helping Georgia move forward on implementation of the Common Core State Standards.
Georgia has also given 12 “innovation in teaching” awards over three separate grant cycles, as of late May. That branch of the program offers grants to individual teachers, who then videotape model lessons. Georgia’s plan is to put those videos online, where other teachers in the state, and even parents, can access them.
A goals of the project: to create supports that will remain in place over the long haul, said Martha Ann Todd, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
“We’re specifically trying to build towards sustainability—things that will help us to continue to provide support to teachers” after the state’s Race to the Top money ends next school year, she said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week as Innovation Fund Proves Standout; 23 Grants to Date