The Urbana school district will pursue federal grant money to help adopt education reforms, but the Champaign school district will not.
The program, called Race to the Top, gives Illinois about $43 million to implement education reforms. The state board of education gets half that money, and half will go to interested school districts who basically agree to be pilot programs for these reforms, said Don Owen, the school district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
But even though the Urbana school district submitted a letter of intent earlier this week, it may not end up participating. If the state money does not cover Urbana's expenses, it can opt out, Owen said.
If it decides to do so, that would happen in March or April, when it sits down with the State Board of Education to make a four-year plan. The school district had to submit a letter of intent just to see how much money it could receive in the program. The district's teacher's union had to agree to submitting the letter of intent, as well.
The school district decided to do that because many of the goals in Race to the Top are similar to those the school district is already working on through its strategic plan, Owen said.
For example, one of the goals for participating districts is to track students' growth from pre-kindergarten throughout their academic careers to understand their needs and help them succeed.
Owen said that matches with Urbana's goal for creating personally challenging goals for each student.
Race to the Top also has a goal of improving parent and community engagement with school districts as it creates a way to track students' growth; Owen said that's also similar to one of the school district's goals.
Race to the Top also will require school districts to implement a school improvement tool called Rising Star, which Owen said provides a structured way to improve schools "by providing research-based options for schools as they work on their school improvement process," Owen said.
As Urbana decides whether to participate, Owen said, the school district will have to weigh how much time and money will be required by Race to the Top, and compare that to how much grant money will be awarded. Owen said he believes the school district will receive a dollar amount this month.
Champaign schools will not pursue the grant money, Superintendent Judy Wiegand said.
Dave Comerford, spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, of which the Champaign Federation of Teachers is a member, said Unit 4 members had concerns.
He said he has heard concerns around the state about expedited timelines for implementing the reforms, and the possibility that the changes will cost more than school districts will receive in grant money.
"A lot of places are looking at what resources do you have, what resources do you need, and there is no guarantee for how much funding you're going to get from the federal government," Comerford said.
With many other things happening in the state's educational arena, many school districts and teachers' unions don't think it's the right time to pursue something like Race to the Top.
"There are a lot of concerns that there are so many moving pieces going on right now," Comerford said.