Race to the Top Returns, This Time for School Districts

But with signoff from local unions required, some districts have been sidelined

Twenty-one New Jersey school districts are among more than 370 nationwide to apply for $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds, as the sweeping and sometimes controversial competition goes local with a push into specific instruction models and technology.

Due last week, the applications came from a wide range of districts in New Jersey, from Newark and Paterson to three different consortia of suburban districts. Winners will be announced by the end of the year.

But part of the story was also about districts that didn’t apply, unable to get their local unions to sign off, as is now required by the grant program. The most notable was the state-run Jersey City schools, the state’s second-largest district and the largest of the New Jersey Education Association’s locals.

Nonetheless, the 21 districts applying were one of the largest totals of any state, all vying to be among the 15 to 20 to be awarded the multimillion dollar grants nationwide.

Following up on the state-based Race to the Top competition that saw 19 states receive more than $4.3 billion in grants, the district-based program is meant to spearhead specific programs that involve “personalized learning,” which includes specific instruction strategies or the use of technology and online learning.

Technology is a focus of at least one of the three consortia: Neptune Township, Neptune City, Belmar, and Bradley Beach have joined together and applied for $13.2 million. The proposal is to build an infrastructure for using mobile technology like laptops and handheld devices and creating “digital portfolios” that can track students’ work from kindergarten through high school.

“You can imagine a second grader writing about what they want to be when they grow up using digital storytelling, and then over time going back and reflecting on that and adding to it as they grow,” said Matthew Gristina, the assistant superintendent in Neptune Township.

With technology advancing quickly in education, Gristina said it’s a project that the districts had hoped to pursue on their own, but the Race to the Top grant would give them a jumpstart. And by banding together, the districts could apply for a larger amount of funding in a competition based on enrollment.

“We hope to do all this anyway, but this really gives it the push,” Gristina said. “There is quite an upfront investment to this.”

The other districts’ proposals are all a variation on the same theme of personalized instruction.

Newark has applied for $30 million. Elizabeth is seeking $10 million to build on its new iPrep School No. 8 that is launching in January, where students will pursue a “blended” model of both online and classroom instruction. The grant would allow the model to be expanded to another half-dozen schools, starting with math instruction.

But not everyone has embraced the competition. The original Race to the Top was successful in pressing states — including New Jersey — to employ education reforms backed by President Obama and his administration, including new national curriculum standards and reforms in teacher evaluation.

But this time out, districts in New Jersey and other states ran into some pushback, which has made it considerably more difficult for them to participate in the latest competition.

Locally, this situation can be seen in Jersey City, where the district’s proposal included new pay incentives for teachers and plans for extended days and years.

The Jersey City Education Association refused to sign on, saying that these are matters to be negotiated in collective bargaining rather than decided unilaterally.

“Not one cent is dedicated to negotiation of a new contract,” wrote Ron Greco, the JCEA president, in a public letter. “Not one single cent. The grant would be our new contract. It has spelled out the extended day, extended week, and extended year. These are negotiable items.”

“I would love for the district to have additional income, especially when we are about to begin bargaining,” he wrote. “However, the price was too high for the JCEA to support this Race to the Top grant.”

The full list of New Jersey applicants is:

  • Atlantic City
  • Bergenfield, with Carteret, Englewood, and Garfield
  • East Orange
  • Elizabeth
  • Hamilton
  • Hammonton
  • Long Branch
  • Neptune Township, with Belmar, Bradley Beach, and Neptune City
  • Paterson
  • Roselle
  • Newark
  • Union City
  • Woodbury City, with Deptford and Deptford Township
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