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story.lead_photo.caption Sara Kennedy helps Nicolas Chagoya, 9, with his research project Nov. 19, 2015, at Monitor Elementary School in Springdale. Kennedy’s fourth-grade class was using Google Chromebooks to help with the research. The School District used a grant to purchase thousands of computers for student. - Photo by Anthony Reyes

SPRINGDALE -- The School District is preparing for the end of a $26 million grant.

Springdale schools won the money from the federal Race to the Top program in late 2013. The district will spend the remaining $1.8 million by the end of June, said Megan Slocum, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

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For more information about the federal Race to the Top education grant program, go here.

The grant has bought, maintained and connected laptop or tablet computers for each of the district's nearly 22,000 students and bolstered its work with online learning, student-led classes and programs for engineering and computer science, Slocum said. The district now will have to keep all of those things running without the infusion of federal money, but Slocum said she's optimistic it can be done.

Each computer is on a five-year schedule for replacement if needed, for example. Slocum said the district's budget has been gradually tweaked to provide money for the ongoing support.

In the meantime, the grant has had such a widespread and deep impact on the district it can be hard to draw a line between programs affected by the grant and those that aren't, she said.

"It has just changed the face of how we do what we do," Slocum said.

She said the grant's biggest impact comes from helping the district plan and launch programs giving students more of a role in their education, such as student-led parent-teacher conferences or the ability to pursue certain subjects more deeply.

Teachers and students also have praised the changes. Sonora Middle School Principal Martha Dodson early last year said students were asking more and more often for lunch passes to work on projects in their classrooms.

"It's not just the ones who are highly motivated," she said. "They're finding something they're interested in."

Race to the Top started in 2009, distributing about $4 billion to schools around the country with the broad goals of improving education and preparing students for today's job market. Springdale was the first and only district in Arkansas to participate, as far as state Department of Education officials know, department spokeswoman Kimberly Friedman wrote in an email last month.

The grants were meant to allow schools to experiment with different ways of teaching and then spread the best ideas to others. It saw mixed results overall, according to two national assessments.

A project of the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute in Washington said in a 2013 report states overpromised what the grants would accomplish and pointed out the grants didn't help with factors outside of school, such as poverty, affecting learning.

The U.S. Department of Education in 2015 reported Race to the Top encouraged improvement in teaching and communication between families and teachers even in places that didn't receive money. It also said the program's impact would show itself over time.

Slocum said Springdale's experience is much more in line with the Education Department's findings. The district has developed a freely accessible computer science curriculum shared with dozens of other districts with hundreds of thousands of students in and out of state.

It's also working on an online application, similar to Blackboard at the university level, to allow students, parents and teachers to share documents, calendars and other material online using those new computers.

"All of this has grown because of these devices," Slocum said.

Kevin Ownbey, president of the School Board, said the grant allowed the district to beef up its staff and develop curricula in reading, science and math and connect every building. He expects the benefits to add up over time.

"That gave us a great advantage, obviously," he said Thursday about the grant.

NW News on 01/06/2018

Print Headline: District preps for grant's end

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