MARSHALL - The Buffalo Ridge Educational Alliance, which includes the school districts of Marshall, Lakeview, Minneota, Windom Area, Pipestone Area and Jackson County Central, was not among the list of 61 semi-finalists for the nationwide Race to the Top-District competition announced by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan Thursday.
The 61 finalists, representing more than 200 school districts across the country, were selected from 372 applications.
"We were kind of disappointed, obviously, but we knew going in that it was a highly competitive grant," Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said. "We knew our chances were pretty limited because of the number of grant applications, but we still felt we had a pretty good plan."
In late May, all public and charter schools in the United States were informed about the RTT-D grant competition, which serves as an incentive for schools to develop and implement personalized learning plans for every student and provide improved levels of teacher training and support in a technology-rich environment.
"The Race to the Top competition put us in an important conversation," Willert said. "It allowed us to look at how we utilize technology and how kids learn best in school. That's what the whole Race to the Top is about."
Despite the fact that the Buffalo Ridge Education Alliance was not chosen, Willert said he felt the application process was not entirely in vain. Schools need to continue making strides to improve and revamp their educational systems and look to the future, he said.
"The skills needed for success in the complex world and economy of today require a different skill set than those in the past," Willert said. "When you look at what's going on with technology and education, in general, the framework that we put together has some merit going forward."
By the end of the year, the Department of Education expects to have narrowed the list of finalists down to 15-25, all of which will receive four-year awards ranging from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the population of students served. A total of $400 million will be awarded.
"When you look at where we are, you have to put it in context," Willert said. "Not a single school made it from Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota or Iowa, and only one Wisconsin application made the semi-finals."
In order to apply for the competitive grant, Willert said, school districts needed to serve at least 2,000 students and have at least a 40 percent student population at or near the poverty level. While Marshall meets the total student criteria, the number of students at or near the poverty level is slightly below, at 35 percent. A collaborative partnership with five other school districts, which the consortium named Buffalo Ridge Educational Alliance, was developed in order to apply for the grant.
Together, the consortium of six districts serves more than 6,500 students with nearly 41 percent of the students at or near the poverty level. Had it been chosen, the group could have been awarded roughly $22 million.
"Ultimately, when you talk about the fact that 372 applications were accepted representing over 1,000 school districts, it was a really narrow window of opportunity," Willert said. "But we'll continue to have these conversations. We could work together again. We'll see where the road takes us."
Though there is nothing certain at this point in time, Willert said there was some speculation that the federal government could offer a second round competition for RTT-D grants.
"I'm anticipating, but I'm not sure, that there could be a second round because of the amount of interest," he said. "That would be good. Our group asked for feedback from the U.S. Department of Education. If and when we get that, we'll use that evaluation and decide what to do going forward."
Without the RTT-D award, the opportunity to upgrade technology within some of the districts may have faded out of the picture for the time being. The issue is something that Willert expects to discuss with the five other superintendents in the Buffalo Ridge Educational Alliance.
"We'll talk about what this means going forward as a collective group and as individuals," Willert said. "The plan embraced some really good ideas that put us on the path to where we want our schools to be."
As promised, Willert said that flexible learning year (FLY) conversations would begin again now that word has come in about the RTT-D competition. The first step is to put discussions in the hands of the community.
"We needed to allow the Race to the Top process to go forward first and now we'll act on FLY," he said. "We'll go ahead and work to get some public meetings set up and allow our community to have some input."
If the community input is positive, in favor of a new 3-year FLY application extension, Willert said the school board will then have the issue in its hands. Based on the feedback that the board gets from the community, a decision is expected near the end of January.
"I think I can speak on behalf of all the school in southwest Minnesota when I say that our region has become stronger because of the way we've embraced FLY," Willert said. "We've moved beyond competing for students. We realize that all of our students need to be successful, that all of our schools need to be successful. That's the spirit we've embraced with FLY and the Race to the Top. That's a different view from where we were 10 years ago."