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State aims for an education payout
Forsyth official serving on panel
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Forsyth County News

Georgia came one step closer Thursday to getting a slice of the $4.35 billion pie the federal government is offering to states that prove they are committed to education reform and student achievement.

The state was selected as one of 16 finalists from a pool of 41 applicants to enter the next round of interviews for the Race to the Top grant.

A delegation of five representatives will visit Washington, D.C., later this month to make another bid for the funds.

Two local educators are on Georgia’s Race to the Top committee, helping in the state’s efforts to secure the money.

Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Lissa Pijanowski, associate superintendent of Forsyth County Schools, and Will Schofield, superintendent of the Hall County School System, to serve on the committee.

The comprehensive reform portion of the race comprises four committees: improving standards and assessments; developing great teachers and leaders; creating longitudinal data systems; and boosting lowest achieving schools.

If Georgia wins, it stands to gain between $200 million and $400 million in federal funding over a three- to four-year period, according to Kathleen

Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Student Achievement.

And the state already has plans for how it would use the money.

Part of the funds would create a system to better track individual student progress and compare Georgia’s students to those in other states using a combination of standardized test scores and grades.

“We have all kinds of plans (for the funding),” Schofield said. “Right now we want to make sure our dreams don’t get ahead of our pocketbooks. We need to be real careful to make sure that we just keep essential services in place.”

Half of Georgia’s pot of funds would be used for statewide initiatives, with the remaining funds distributed to school districts that are already hurting from sweeping budget cuts.

“I’d want to use it to continue to push forward in these economic times,” Schofield said. “It’d give us a real opportunity to keep, for the most part, personnel on hand and to continue to keep offering programs.”

About $350 million of the grant would be doled out to states who show the most dedication to developing systems that gauge student achievement.

The governor has shown support by implementing the controversial Common Core State Standards, which asks states to develop a curriculum that has at least 85 percent of the standards.

A bill currently making its way through the General Assembly also would ask the state board of education to develop a performance evaluation system for teachers and school leaders by next year.

The standards initiative is a state-led process to develop a common core of state criteria in English-language arts and mathematics for kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the initiative’s Web site.

While Forsyth’s school board has taken a wait-and-see approach toward Race to the Top, Pijanowski said about two dozen other districts have signed on to be part of the implementation process, including Hall and Gainesville.

Still, she was not surprised to learn Georgia had been named as one of 16 finalists.

Pijanowski served on the "developing great teachers and leaders" subcommittee with about 20 other members.

The group was responsible for developing a plan to consistently improve principal and teacher effectiveness based on performance.

“Forsyth carries a pretty strong reputation in Georgia and I think that’s one of the reasons I was chosen to serve on the committee, because they wanted systems that have a proven practice to be at the table to inform the direction the state should go,” she said.

As one of only a few educators representing public schools, Pijanowski said she felt like she “gave the school districts across the state of Georgia a voice.”

But Forsyth’s school leaders have spoken against jumping on board just yet.

“They really felt strongly that they wanted to keep our focus with the IE2 contract we already had with the state,” she said.

“There are several facets of the Road to the Top application that are included in our strategic plan, and what we’re currently doing with IE2.”

Forsyth’s IE2, or Investing in Education Excellence, plan gives the district more flexibility from state mandates, providing the district meets higher accountability measures.

The state’s Race to the Top proposal gained early support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The foundation selected Georgia as one of 15 states that received $250,000 in consultation resources in August.

Other finalists include Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The winners will be chosen in April. Losing states will have another shot at the grant in June, when the U.S. Department of Education reviews a new round of applicants.

But coming in second wouldn’t sit well with Schofield.

“I don’t want round two,” he said. “We want round one because we could use the financial support now.”

Staff Writer Jennifer Sami contributed to this report.