Rural Winners Dominate Race to the Top District Competition

By Diette Courrégé Casey — December 17, 2013 3 min read
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Five winners, including Houston Independent Schools, will share $120 million in the second Race to the Top district competition from the U.S. Department of Education, which again asked districts to come up with their best education-improvement ideas that focused on personalized learning.

Besides Houston, a 200,000-student urban district and two-time Broad Prize winner, the winners are:

  • Clarendon County School District Two, a consortium of four rural districts in central South Carolina that describes itself as “very diverse.” It encompasses districts with both rural and urban poverty, districts with a high percentage of minority students, and districts with a burgeoning population of English-learners. Winnings: $25 million.
  • Clarksdale Municipal School District in the Mississippi Delta, a mostly black district with 3,350 students. Winnings: $10 million.
  • Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a consortium of 18 rural districts, that narrowly missed winning last time around. Winnings: $30 million.
  • Springdale School District in the northwest corner of Arkansas. This district near the Tyson Foods headquarters enrolls 20,500 students, including many English-learners. Interestingly, the city of Springdale has one of the largest populations of Marshall Islands immigrants in the country. Winnings: $25.9 million.

Houston’s winnings amount to $30 million.

Notably, no charter school operators or districts won. And several big-city finalists were left out of the winners’ circle, including Baltimore and Denver.

The biggest losers this year were perhaps Winston-Salem in North Carolina and KIPP’s TEAM Academy Charter School in New Jersey, which ranked 4th and 5th overall, but were passed over in favor of the two heavily rural applicants: Clarksdale (which ranked 12th) and Kentucky Valley (which ranked 13th). (By way of background, the applications were divided into four buckets, based on whether they are rural or not, and whether they are located in a Race to the Top state or not.)

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners who has written a book about urban school systems of the future, said he was encouraged to see rural districts, which often get overlooked, among the winners. However, he said, “I can understand the frustration of those passed over. You play by the rules and score well enough to win but get bumped to make room for others. The exclusion of KIPP TEAM is particularly disappointing because having a high-performing high-poverty charter network in this portfolio of winners would’ve added a valuable dimension.”

In a call with reporters, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged that there were far more deserving applications than money to fund them. He said he feels “fantastic” about the winners. “We want to make sure we’re serving children across the country,” he said, adding that the goal is to “get a mix of innovation in very different communities.”

Last year, Duncan picked 16 winners, which split a much bigger pot of $400 million. The winners’ circle last year included three charter-school operators and Miami-Dade County Schools.

In this year’s competition, the winners were selected from 31 finalists, representing 80 school districts across 21 states. The department received more than 200 applications for the competition.

We’re still waiting for the Education Department to spell out how much each district won. Individual grants were expected to range from $4 million to $20 million, depending on enrollment.

The leaders of these winning districts are taking similar approaches to personalizing learning for students.

Houston is working on a 1:1 digital conversion that starts in earnest in January, when students in grades 9-12 will get a laptop to take home--to foster 24/7 learning.

“This helps us [on] how we can scale up, and how we can do this faster, better,” said Superintendent Terry Grier in the media call with reporters.

Clarendon also wants to increase access to digital devices for students and create individualized learning plans for each student.

Springdale plans to expand career academies, require 9th graders to take an online course, and improve its data dashboard.

Clarksdale will focus on expanding its 9th grade academy. And the Kentucky Valley co-op will expand distance learning and better train teachers to use technology.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.