Atlanta charter school gets $1 million grant; four others also receive innovation grants

Gov. Nathan Deal surprised an Atlanta charter school Monday with a big boost to its bank account – $1 million in Race to the Top money.

Students and staff at Charles R. Drew Charter School greeted news of the award with applause and cheers on the first morning of classes.

Other winners, collecting about $3.05 million combined, learned of their grant awards via teleconference or personal phone call from Deal later in the day. They were among 70 applicants competing for a share of $19.4 million in Race to the Top money that Deal set aside to award local innovations.

Georgia last year won a $400 million Race to the Top grant, half of which is committed to 26 local school districts that were part of the state's application.

Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed kicked off the announcements by appearing personally at Drew Charter. The East Lake school will be receiving $1 million over the next three years to create one of the state's first STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) schools, Deal said.

Deal told school leaders that its STEAM model of education was one to emulate. While many schools teach a STEM curriculum -- science, technology, engineering and math -- Drew added an "A" for arts.

"We know you're doing something really good and we're excited about it," Deal said. "We want to encourage you to continue to do that. Your STEAM approach is very unique. We want to make STEAM a model for other schools to be able to implement all around our state."

Drew principal Don Doran said the school had thrown its "hat in the ring like everybody else," but said the school's approach has paid off.

"Obviously we have some unique ideas about technology," Doran said. "We do have a broader trajectory that I think gives people confidence to invest in something that is obviously going to be sustainable."

The innovation grant will be about much more than technology, or at least more than just buying new hardware, he said.

"We didn’t ask for 'stuff,'" Doran said. "Staff development is something we really honor. Yeah, everybody can get these netbooks, but if you don’t have instruction on how to use it and instruction on how to enhance engagement, it just becomes a toy. It’s truly not only about hardware."

Georgia Tech will have a role in three of the projects, a nod, the governor said, to the Tech's strengths as a research institute. Among those programs will be an effort to recruit Tech's math, science and technology teachers to work in rural Georgia. Tech also will be working with Barrow County schools on a similar project focused on these subjects.

Also picked to receive a $1 million grant was the KIPP Teacher Fellows Program, a teacher induction program that will train Georgia State University and Mercer University education graduates and deploy them to the most needy metro Atlanta school systems, the governor's office said.

At KIPP main Atlanta office, executive director David Jernigan was ecstatic with the award, which will help support the professional development and salaries of full-time student-teachers selected from Georgia State and Mercer.

“It will be a competitive selection process,” Jernigan said. “Essentially it’s an apprenticeship. They will be placed in a KIPP school. They will be working under a KIPP master teacher and have a growing set of responsibilities through a gradual release approach.”

KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) is part of a national network of charter schools targeting low-income communities.

Jernigan said the first fellowship teachers will be selected between January and March of 2012. Initially, six will be selected, but as many as 20 may eventually participate in the fellowship class, he said.

The student-teachers will enter classrooms at KIPP schools by next July. KIPP currently has five schools, including KIPP Atlanta Collegiate High School and is scheduled to open its first two elementary schools in July 2012.

“Teacher effectiveness is a real challenge in education in general, particularly for new teachers,” Jernigan said. “It is our hope that with quality preparation in a high performing school, under a master teacher ... they will be well prepared to teach in any urban school in metro Atlanta.”

A $50,000 planning grant was also awarded to White, Hall and Lumpkin counties, which hope to create a three-county STEM charter school with help from North Georgia College & State University.

Staff writer Aileen Dodd contributed to this article.