Race to the Top program faces challenges

In 2010, DeKalb was awarded $34 million as one of 26 local school districts that signed onto the state's successful grant application. That was the easy part.

The county's Race to the Top plans called for hiring 18 people -- most to work from the central office -- by last August, said Walter Woods, school system spokesman.

But Atkinson, who took over in September, and her new leadership team worried about overstaffing and decided that 18 was 15 people too many.

State officials last month sent Atkinson a letter of warning, saying the county had to make the new hires by late this month or face possible consequences. They have since signed off on Atkinson's plan to pare down the number of hires -- to three math coaches -- and put the leftover money into extra teacher training and stipends for teachers willing to help in after-school programs focused on math and reading, Woods said.

"It is our goal to align our grant funding with Dr. Atkinson's vision, which is to focus all of the school system's resources and attention on improving student success and, whenever possible, driving our resources to the school level and the classroom, where they can be most effective," he said.

This is no random anecdote. Throughout the metro area, deadlines have been a struggle in Race to the Top, an initiative launched by the Obama administration to encourage reforms, including controversial teacher evaluation and pay plans tied to student achievement.

Georgia was named a grant winner in August 2010 and fell immediately behind schedule. The state won the grant on its second try, but had failed to update the timelines its had submitted months earlier in its Round 1 application.

Complicating matters, the state had high-level leadership changes with a new governor and state school superintendent that, by some estimates, put it 18 months behind.

"Overall, things are going good," Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Schools, told a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees last week.

"It doesn't mean we don't have our challenges," Wilbanks said. "The timing one is the greatest challenge we have."

Gwinnett, the state's largest school system, is a partner in Race to the Top, as are Atlanta, Cherokee, Clayton and DeKalb school districts.

Teresa MacCartney, deputy state superintendent for Race to the Top implementation, said Monday state officials have "already revised our scope of work to ensure we will be on target to meet our timelines."

"However, the timelines for the teacher and leader evaluation system are aggressive," MacCartney said.

Most of the 26 school districts have been heavily involved in teacher training for the roll-out next fall of the new Common Core standards, which set expectations for what students in most states should know at each grade to be college- and career-ready.

They're also focused on a scaled-down, four-month pilot of a new teacher, as well as principal, evaluation system. Most educators acknowledge that the state's current satisfactory/unsatisfactory evaluation system needs replacing, but some are skeptical of one tied to student testing.

"It sounds good to pay better teachers more money, but how do you measure that?" said Matt Jones, a high school teacher in rural Toombs County. "Testing has a place, but it should be used as a diagnostic tool instead of to pressure and punish students and teachers."

About 10 percent of the districts' teachers are participating in the pilot, including 682 in DeKalb, 1,272 in Gwinnett, 268 in Cherokee, 394 in Clayton, 686 in Atlanta and 336 in Henry school systems.

"Like all the districts, we're trying to see how the pieces fit together," said Dan Ray, Henry County's Race to the Top coordinator. "If we can get it right, then I do believe it will have a true impact on student achievement and quality work from our teachers."

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