WASHINGTON (AP) -- Students will earn an associate's degree and a high school diploma at the same time. Every student will have a laptop to take home at night. And teachers will be retrained to let students move at their own pace.
All are pilot programs the Education Department is funding with $120 million in grants to five school groups, Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.
"These are bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will improve both student achievement and educator effectiveness," Duncan told reporters.
"The best ideas in education don't come from anyone here in Washington," the secretary added.
More than 200 school districts applied for the Race to the Top money, part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package from 2009. This is the second year the department has given funds directly to local schools to implement their own improvement plans that align to the administration's goals, such as linking student test scores with teacher evaluations. In total, the program has dispersed $4 billion to states and local districts so far.
Houston Independent School District and a consortium of 18 districts clustered under the banner of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative received just shy of $30 million each. Arkansas' Springdale School District will collect $25.9 million and a consortium of four rural districts led by South Carolina's Clarendon County School District 2 will receive almost $25 million.
The department also awarded $10 million to Mississippi's Clarksdale Municipal School District.
"These winners shine a light on the innovative work going on across the country, in urban and suburban and rural school districts to tailor and to individualize education for all students," Duncan said.
The grants are to be spread over four years and were based on the schools' plan to improve teachers' effectiveness, prepare students for life after high school and turn around specific challenges in their districts, such as high absenteeism or low graduation rates. The grants also set aside money to improve schools' technologies and to teach educators how to customize curriculum based on students' interests.
"We don't want to teach everybody the same. We don't believe that one size fits all," said John Tindal, superintendent of the Clarendon district. "This will enable us and enable our teachers to change their format and increase the technology among our students. We understand technology is the way to go if we're going to enhance education in our rural communities."
In Arkansas, Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins said the grant will help improve graduation rates by tailoring classrooms to "allow our youngsters move at their own pace." Rollins also said a high school diploma alone shouldn't be the best they aim for.
"We believe that youngsters can complete their high school experience not just with a high school degree but with an associate's degree," Rollins said. "We believe that's very doable."
In Houston, the grant will help the district continue its program to give every high school student a laptop and expand its effort to have students earn associate's degree before graduating from high school, Houston Superintendent Terry Grier said. Their goal: 2,000 students earning both a high school diploma and an associate's degree each year.
"This helps us really scale up and do this faster, better," Grier said.
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