AUGUSTA — After the state struck out in two versions of the Race to the Top federal grant competition, few Maine schools now seem interested in a new district-level round of grants.

Among 893 school districts that plan to apply for a share of the $400 million pot, the only two from Maine are Auburn and Portland, though others may join Auburn’s application to form a consortium.

Most Maine school districts are not eligible for the Race to the Top district competition because of their small size.

Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18, which would be eligible on its own, is too focused on trying to get a budget approved to put together a proposal, said Superintendent Gary Smith. The district’s school budget have been rejected twice by voters in recent months.

“Even though we believe we would have an absolutely good case for the application, I think at this time we’re not going to proceed,” Smith said. “There are just too many components that just don’t work for us from a timing perspective. I think if we had another year, we would definitely be interested.”

RSU 18 probably would be well-positioned to secure a grant because it is implementing a proficiency-based education model that aligns with the “personalized learning environments” that are the competition’s top priority.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education released final guidelines Aug. 12, leaving little time for districts to meet a nonbinding Aug. 30 deadline to signal their intent to apply. Applications are due Oct. 30.

Federal officials expect to make 15 to 25 awards of $5 million to $40 million. Maine school districts that apply will be competing with some of the nation’s largest, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

Federal education reform initiatives come with strings attached, and it can be difficult for districts to follow through or even put together a proposal, said Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

“There apparently is a skill set to writing these federal grants that not everyone has the capacity to do,” Douglass said. “The question really comes: Do you have the capacity to do what it is you’re going to be required, even with the funding that comes with it?”

Race to the Top is a multibillion initiative of the Obama administration to promote school reforms such as performance-based teacher evaluations, school choice and data systems to track student progress.

Maine has submitted two unsuccessful applications to versions of Race to the Top for elementary and secondary education and for early childhood education.

The district competition requires enacting evaluations systems for teachers, principals and the superintendent; measuring all student progress against college- and career-ready standards; and using data to track student growth and match it to teachers.

At most, 25 school districts in Maine meet the eligibility threshold of 2,000 students and 40 percent low-income students. Smaller districts may apply as part of a group of at least 10 districts.

New model funding

Several districts in the state are pioneering the proficiency-based approach such as that adopted by RSU 18. The education model, which is also being pushed by the Maine Department of Education, allows students to advance at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery of specific standards.

Under the full use of the model, students are grouped in classes based on their knowledge, not by age, and the traditional A-through-F grading system is based by a number scale of 1-4.

Portland Public Schools has received a $5 million grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to develop flexible, personalized pathways for high school students to reach standards. The district already is using some components of a proficiency-based model, including the numerical grading system at Casco Bay High School.

Portland intends to apply for a Race to the Top grant of $10 million to $20 million and would be one of 202 applicants for a grant of that size.

The Auburn School Department, which also is pursuing proficiency-based education, plans to apply to Race to the Top as the lead district in a consortium seeking an award of $5 million to $10 million. That is the smallest grant size and the one with the most competition, with 433 announced applicants.

Auburn’s consortium would be drawn from among the 13 full members of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, a group of school districts pursuing proficiency-based education. Hallowell-based RSU 2, Unity-based RSU 3 and RSU 18 are members of the cohort.

Working together

Mike Muir, multiple pathways leader for Auburn, said cohort members have just begun discussing an application.

No one has yet committed to participate.

If the consortium is successful, the money probably could go toward teacher and administrator training, curriculum organization, work with families or development of student data systems, Muir said.

The cohort schools have been working together for more than a year, and Muir said their shared vision and track record thus far should make for a strong application.

He’s also encouraged by elements of the competition that seem designed to aid rural schools.

“I think they’re looking to cover the bases geographically,” he said. “I think they’re also intentionally trying not to make them all urban awards.

“Especially if we have a consortium and can show that there’s some synergy to our work and the alignment of our work to the state, the fact that we represent some rural districts in northern New England may work in our favor.”

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