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SLV consortium makes headway

Posted: Thursday, Dec 13th, 2012

George Welsh

Courier staff writer

VALLEY — Race to the Top dollars are not coming to southern Colorado, but the Valley Consortium (VC), a multi-district, grassroots effort to improve K-12 education, is moving forward with help from other funding sources.

Last year, the 14 Valley school districts united to try to capture a federal Race to the Top district competition (RTTTDC) grant worth roughly $20 million. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) announced the awardees, and the VC was not on the list.

“We put out an excellent grant,” said Center Consolidated School District Superintendent and VC leader George Welsh in an interview Tuesday morning. “We had to pull 14 school districts together and that includes school boards, superintendents and teacher associations. And we did.”

RTTTDC is a national competition providing incentives to states to adopt bold and comprehensive reforms in elementary and secondary education, and lay the foundation for unprecedented innovation, according to the USDE. A total of 46 states and the District of Columbia have designed 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. The purpose of the RTTTDC is to build on the lessons learned from the state competitions conducted under the Race to the Top program and to support bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness.

The Valley already has “bold and comprehensive reforms” in motion, and, although the $20 million would have been a great help, it is not going to stifle the VC’s momentum to meet and potentially surpass state and federal standards, Welsh said.

“The impetus of writing the grant causes you to think about the future and what you want the system to look like,” he said. “We have this accreditation and accountability system that is one of the most advanced in the country because we were shooting for Race to the Top dollars for the state (in 2010). The goal was to develop these programs, these reforms and adopt them. Then, with the money from the feds, implement them.”

He added, “The dots that haven’t connected yet are with the reforms, but we haven’t gone down the road to implement them because we never got the dollars. One way you might look at the situation for the San Luis Valley is that we have developed a plan that is out there for us to shoot for and this particular round we just didn’t get the funding.”

Although the federal dollars are again a dream for the future, Welsh said the VC was awarded a $1.5 million Colorado Department of Education (CDE) Increasing Achievement and Growth Grant on Tuesday afternoon, and is waiting to learn if the Colorado Legacy Foundation (CLF) wants to bring Extended Learning Opportunities Grant dollars to the Valley to fund a number of pilot iPad classrooms.

“What the (Increasing Achievement and Growth) grant will do is give all of the Valley schools K-5 level teachers intense instruction on how to take kids that are reading below grade level and bring them up, and it will also give us resources and training as to how to do intense interventions with kids,” Welsh said. “What we believe it takes for kids to catch up is more than good, quality instruction in the classroom. When a kid comes in a year behind, to improve the literacy situation it takes extra time like an hour after school three days a week or an extended summer program with an intensive focus.”

The grant dollars will be spread over four years, according to CDE documents. The VC will see $150,000 in year one; $237,000 in year two; $120,000 in year three and $89,000 in its last year.

The CLF grant is worth $75,000, and could keep Valley education on par with what Welsh said he considers the future of education: technology in the classroom.

“If we get this grant, we will offer 16 pilot sites across the Valley,” Welsh explained. “There is a good chance everyone can get one. They will get a classroom full of iPads, the Mac station for operation and all the teachers in the pilot would get the training on how to effectively implement that kind of instruction in the classroom.”

He said that although $75,000 doesn’t sound like much, it would allow Valley schools to access cutting edge technology at half the cost. The grant will provide $3,500 for the pilot program and each district will have to contribute the same amount.

“It will give us enough money to run a pilot and if the pilot is successful, people will see the value,” Welsh said. “They want us to do something that in the end we will be able to afford doing by ourselves.”

He added, “I think the school districts in the Valley will realize that if you buy an iPad and $3 applications to support the kids, you have a system where the kids are getting richer learning in the classroom and, if you can safely create a system where they can take them (iPads) home, you are extending learning an hour a day. They will do the work on the weekends. The kids might even think they are gaming when they are learning phonics, learning to spell or learning geography.”

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