Race to the Top may be over, but the Bibb County school district is still running.
The county received $13.3 million from the federal grant, designed to spur innovation and reform in public school education, and it has a little more than $2 million remaining, said Jo-ne Bourassa, the system’s grant director.
So far, she said, the county’s share of the $4.35 billion grant has been well spent.
When the program ended this past June, the county got a no-cost extension to spend the rest of the grant through June 2015.
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“I’ve been really happy with how we’ve spent the money,” Bourassa said. “I think it’s been purposeful.”
Before he retired and left the system, former interim Superintendent Steve Smith said that while “academic gains” across the system had been mixed, he was pleased with the district’s efforts as a whole to assess needs and find solutions.
“I think that you’re going to see significant academic improvement in the future,” he said.
Four main buckets
There were “four main buckets” the grant money went toward since it began in the 2010-11 school year, Bourassa said.
The first was standards and achievement. Because of the implementation of Common Core curriculum standards in 2012, a bulk of the efforts in that area went to training for those standards.
Bourassa said the district funneled some funding toward improving teachers’ approaches to preparing students for assessments.
The second area targeted was giving the district “great teachers and leaders,” which Bourassa said didn’t vary much from what the district was already doing.
“This went hand in hand with the state’s new teacher and leader evaluation program,” she said.
The district also provided more support for its new teachers to help retain quality educators with the most modern training available.
The third focus was the district’s data systems. The state is pushing to have 100 percent of testing online within a few years, Bourassa said, which meant the district needed to get “adequate computers” in each of the county’s schools.
In an effort that was in line with the state’s new College and Career Ready Performance Index measure, the online assessments have been aimed at the “student growth component” in each area. Including areas not traditionally tested, such as fine arts, students take pre- and post-tests to show not just raw achievement but also individual improvement.
“The idea of growth, that ‘I started at this point and look where I ended up,’” Bourassa explained. “That’s one area that I can say that teachers are looking at student growth and not just student achievement.”
The fourth area has been a focus on the lowest achieving schools, which Bourassa said wasn’t simply limited to the traditional schools that weren’t doing well in testing.
“We looked at our alternative schools, so we provided our teachers with additional training,” she said.
Looking at results
Those district level initiatives also led to hiring math and graduation coaches at the county’s high schools. Results through graduation coaches have been so positive, Bourassa said, that the county is trying to sustain those efforts.
“We saw that those really helped,” she said. “Through other funding sources and other grant sources, they’ve been able to keep sort of that position.”
One school that saw marked improvement on graduation day was Northeast High School. At the end of the 2011-12 school year, Northeast had a four-year graduation rate of just 47 percent. For the 2013-14 year, that number had increased to 65 percent, second only to Howard’s 71 percent in Bibb County.
Northeast’s graduation coach, Sheryl Hodges, now works with ninth- and 10th-graders as part of a Gear-Up grant, which aims to help low-income students enter and succeed in postsecondary education.
Efforts to increase the graduation rate begin with teachers in the classroom, she said, but extend to such things as seeking out students that are moving toward dropout status and even properly coding transfer students.
“We’re going to call them in, and we’re going to talk to them about what other options they have besides dropping out,” Hodges said.
Southwest also saw a big jump in four-year graduation numbers, from 39 percent in 2012 to 56.1 percent in 2014.
Bibb County as a whole increased from 52.3 percent to 58.9, while the state went from 69.7 to 72.5 percent.
“When all parties come together working toward that graduation rate, it makes a serious impact,” Hodges said.
After this school year, the Race to the Top money will be gone, but Bourassa said the resulting initiatives and lessons won’t go away.
There is a sustainment plan in place, even if Bourassa herself -- whose position was funded through the grant -- is no longer on staff.
“If I am not here, the plan is written that ‘these departments are going to take care of these particular components,’” she said.
Either way, Bourassa said she’s pleased with the outcomes she’s seen of the grant expenditures.
“The benefits for that money, it’s becoming evident in the district,” she said.
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.