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Springfield seeks $20 million school grant

Rise to the Top funds point to the future of education.Digital and traditional systems could be used to meet variety of individual learning needs.

It’s no certainty the Springfield City School District will win one of the $10 million to $20 million grants the U.S. Department of Education plans to award in December to some districts its size.

But with Tuesday’s filing deadline for the Race to the Top program approaching, Superintendent David Estrop said the money will help winning districts build the systems that will accelerate education’s move “from a production line mentality” dating from the 1950s and ’60s, to the “total customer drive, personalized experience” of the future.

“We’re headed there anyway,” Estrop said of the Springfield district, but getting the money would “allow us to do it faster than we could on our own.”

An executive summary of Race to the Top said the goals of a first round of grants were to encourage districts to develop “plans to implement college- and career-ready standards, use data systems to guide learning and teaching, evaluate and support teachers and school leaders, and turn around their lowest-performing schools.”

All align with the challenges facing urban districts like Springfield’s, trying to teach students who sometimes arrive at school with vast differences not only in their abilities but their readiness for learning.

Springfield City Schools used $718,000 from that first phase to build one element of that kind of program, its after school Learning Cafe.

The current round of grants is offering much more money because it wants districts to devise district-wide, comprehensive systems to meet the same larger goals, including helping students who are behind catch up.

To describe the general shape of the changes to come, Estrop compared education and automobiles.

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying customers could order his Model T in any color they wanted, as long as it was black.

Now, Estrop said, people can get on car websites and, so long as they include all the basics, like some kind of motor, design a car with all the available options.

He say that with the development of different approaches to learning leveraged by the digital age, that kind of custom designing is coming to education.

The glimpse at some of the more basic choices students and their parents now have can be seen by clicking on the “Navigate to Success” tab on city school district’s home page.

That includes:

•Credit Flex, a program that allows students to earn high school credit for learning outside the classroom;

•Springfield High School and its five academies of learning;

• College Credit, a program in which students can earn those credits before graduating;

•Alternative education programs for those who don’t fare well in traditional programs;

•Career development, which offers limited internship opportunities;

•The Learning Cafe of credit and non-credit courses; and

•OnCourse, an accredited online learning program for students in grades K-12.

Estrop said these initiatives grew out of a survey of city schools parents who asked for greater choices in the way the schools serve their children. They also address the wide range of starting points and abilities of students, as well as a wide variety of goals.

“While we have components of all of this in place, and students have some of these choices,” Estrop said, “what we’re talking about is scaling it up and taking it to the next level of technology.”

Estrop said such a system presents two fundamental challenges.

One is that “with all these choices, you’ve got to help people understand the choices or it’s just not meaningful,” he said.

Another is the logistics of making all the pieces work together.

The current Race to the Top grants encourage schools to develop digital and human systems to keep up with their students’ progress; identify what other resources can be used to help them; and provide those through traditional and online sources.

“There are components of this spread here and there,” Estrop said, “but nobody has put the whole package together. Nobody has built the web interface” necessary to coordinate all the elements.

“The money (from the grant) would allow us to design it, build it, implement it and evaluate it,” he said.

Estrop called not only the grants but their mechanics “very unusual, because they’re coming directly from the U.S. Department of Education to the school district.”

Another unusual element — based on the grant’s goals — is that the size of award, based on the size of the district and the system it would need to develop.

With its 7,800 students, Springfield’s district falls into the grant’s category of 5,001 to 10,000 students, which would be awarded $10-20 million.

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