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home : opinion : editorial June 24, 2016

9/24/2013 4:40:00 PM
School aims high

This week, the Windom School District demonstrated once again that it refuses to settle for "good enough."
School officials have announced they will submit another application for the federally funded Race to the Top grant program. The decision to seek this grant received approval from both the Windom school board and the teaching staff.
The application also includes five other schools from the region: Jackson, Marshall, Pipestone, Lakeview and Minneota. If the application is approved, the six districts will share $20 million to be used over four years. The amount of funds received are based on enrollment, so Windom's share would be about $3 million.
But this grant program is about far more than bringing extra dollars to our communities. It exemplifies a theme we've seen in this district for a number of years now. That theme is, to steal a phrase from the U.S. Air Force, "aim high."
Make no mistake, this grant program is not an easy money grab for American school districts. Last year, more than 300 school districts from across the country (including the local six-district group) sought a piece of the $400-million pie. Of those, only 16 districts actually received funding.
As for the districts that did not receive grants, we believe the federal government achieved its goal. It got schools thinking outside the box, formulating strategies for raising overall student achievement.
The Race to the Top grant specifications call for four specific requirements:
• Personal learning plan for all students.
• Incorporate 21st century skills into the curriculum.
• Evaluation processes for teachers, principals and superintendents.
• Compete as a rural school district or consortium.
In addition, the applicants must meet certain thresholds just to be eligible for the grant: They must have at least 2,000 students, 40% of which must qualify for free or reduced lunches. In this case, the total student population is 6,654 and the free and reduced lunch population is 40.92%, led by Pipestone and Windom's totals of 47% and 45%, respectively.
Granted, the funding may not be there to fulfill every goal, but at least schools have a road map for greater success. The six-school group has even developed a mission statement: "To create personalized learning environments and experiences that prepare students for career and college success in an ever-changing world."
And, although our schools did not receive the $20 million grant last year, several took strides toward fulfilling some of the goals on their grant application.
Among the schools that have already started implementing parts of the technology and personalized learning programs from the grant application are: Windom, Pipestone and Marshall.
In Windom's case, the district started a pilot program called the Eagle Academy. Targeted for grades 1-3, the program is designed to move toward personalized learning plans for each student. Windom also rolled out its new one-to-one technology plan in which every student from grades 4-12 receives an iPad for daily use.
We're also seeing advances in technology and personalized learning programs in Marshall and Pipestone.
Obviously, this effort strengthens the local grant application. It shows reviewers the districts' capacity to move forward with their goals.
Let's not forget that we would not even be at the application stage without the support of the teaching staff. If this grant receives approval, implementation of the new program will be no easy task.
Granted, the teachers would be compensated for the additional training time. Nonetheless, it is time-consuming, tedious and a recipe for more paperwork.
By pursuing this major grant, our school district is, in effect, saying: "We are not satisfied with 'good enough.' We are determined to keep raising the bar for local education. And, if the federal government wants to put $20 million toward that effort, all the better."
- Rahn Larson

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