OUR OPINION: Reaching top rung requires big effort

By NEMS Daily Journal

The decision by the Tupelo Public Schools to apply for a federal Race to the Top grant is one of the most rigorous – and appropriate – challenges ever undertaken by the district, and if successful, some of the 7,500-student district’s loftiest goals could be within financial reach.
The decision to seek the coveted grant, which could mean $10 million to $20 million for the district spread over the next four years, requires a high-energy, sharply focused proposal that must be in the hands of the U.S. Department of Education by the end of October.
The 2012 application cycle is the first time since the Race to the Top started in 2009 that individual districts have been eligible to apply. Tupelo meets some of the basic education reform guidelines because Mississippi applied for statewide funds, but it was not one of the states selected.
TPSD grant writer Mary Ann Plasencia said Wednesday it is her understanding that about a dozen Mississippi districts are in the process of preparing and submitting proposals. Almost 900 districts nationwide are seeking the grants, USA Today reported in late August.
That number does not include districts like Tupelo, which decided after those statistics were released by the Department of Education to make application.
This year’s DOE grant process is focused on personalized learning, narrowing achievement gaps and preparing students for college and careers – all goals articulated by the Tupelo district.
Plasencia said the application process requires the district to clearly state its academic information and equally clearly state what it seeks to achieve.
Those goals include expanding early-childhood education, offering dual-enrollment/high school-college credit options at Tupelo High, expanding its instructional technology and initiating a strong parents-as-teachers component.
Plasencia said Wednesday the district has the information it needs to complete the application.
That same information, should Tupelo not receive RTT grants, immediately could be used to seek other funds from different sources to accomplish the same or similar goals.
“I believe the best ideas come from leaders at the local level,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview in mid-summer.
Secretary Duncan has said he hopes the response will build on “this nationwide momentum by funding districts that have innovative plans to transform the learning environment, a clear vision for reform and track records of success.”
Districts like Tupelo striving to reach the top rung succeed only when they stretch beyond the status quo, using sharply defined goals and plans as foundations on which to match ambitions with success.