Fine Print: Newark’s Race to the Top Application

John Mooney | December 3, 2012 | Education
Ambitious and expensive, the proposal from the state's largest district wants almost $30 million to put "personalized learning" in the schools

What it is: Newark is one of two finalists from New Jersey for the latest federal Race to the Top competition, this one for individual districts. A consortium led by Neptune Township is the other New Jersey finalist, out of 61 nationwide.

What it means: The 460-page application seeks $29.96 million out of the $400 million federal pot, proposing a range of projects around the competition’s focus on “personalized learning.” It has a big dose of technology, seeking to bring “blended learning” models to at least a dozen schools that will rely heavily on online instruction. It is big on data, too; one of the key emphases is infusing student learning data into all facets of teaching and instruction. And its third big strand is social-emotional support, helping students with nonacademic skills vital to learning.

Charter schools: Sure to generate some heat in this city, the proposal also includes collaborations with Newark’s strong charter school community. Among them: annual symposiums for sharing ideas and best practices, combined training between district and charter school teachers and leaders, and quarterly parent workshops, to educate them “about school quality issues and emerging practices.”

Outside partners: Also sure to stir some controversy, much of the plan will rely on partnerships with outside organizations. For instance, the application said the largest piece of the data component will go to an outside consultant to lead the assessments, analysis, and training for teachers. It doesn’t name names of any of these partnerships, saying they will all go to public bid.

Strand 1 — Data and teaching: The linchpin for the project and already a centerpiece of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s vision for the district, the proposal calls for a heavy use of student learning data to help guide and adjust instruction. Over the course of the four-year grant, virtually all of the elementary and middle schools will have new student assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards and coaching strategies for teachers attached to them. The largest cost will be the outside partner to develop the assessments and support, estimated to be nearly $7 million of the $8.4 million total for this strand over four years.

Strand 2 — Social-emotional support: The proposal calls for students to have “individual learning plans” that will help them reach college and career readiness. But it is the least developed section of the plan, with the tools yet to be determined and the first year of the grant largely devoted to research and development, the application said. There are also plans for a “student engagement and school climate survey” and several other projects. The total price tag for this strand is $5.2 million over four years.

Strand 3 — Blended learning pilot: Among the more tangible — and most expensive — results if the district wins the grant will be the launch of a pilot in nearly a dozen elementary schools and high schools using “blended learning” models that mix face-to-face instruction with online tools. For the elementary schools, it will start in grades three to five and move up a grade a year. The high school program will focus on at-risk ninth graders who are reading below proficiency levels.

Not small stuff: If successful, the blended learning could grow to include as much as a third of the district’s schools. “We believe that the target we have set for 20-25 schools to adopt one of the blended learning models by the end of the grant is ambitious yet achievable,” the application reads.

Not cheap, either: Overall, the cost of this third strand — including hardware, software, and other technology infrastructure — as well as extensive staffing — is nearly $14 million, or close to half of the overall proposal over four years.

Taken together: . . . these three strands of work amount to a compelling platform for systemic change: building school by school, grade by grade, to transform student learning district-wide. Our ultimate goal at Newark Public Schools is for students to graduate high school with a mastery of the academic, social, and emotional skills they need to succeed in college and life.”

Outside reaction: The district has yet to actually release the full proposal. (NJ Spotlight obtained a copy from other sources.) But it plans to release it this week, and discuss it in greater detail. It did already hold meetings with various stakeholder groups to lay out the broad parameters of the plan. A half-dozen of those groups and individuals wrote letters of support, including Mayor Cory Booker, the Newark Teachers Union, the Newark Advisory Board, and the Newark Municipal Council. Several key foundations and other community groups also endorsed the plan, including the Prudential Foundation, Foundation for Newark’s Future, and Newark Charter School Fund.

Next steps: The U.S. Department of Education has said it will pick up to 20 grant winners by the end of this month.