MANATEE -- When the federal government announced a multimillion-dollar education grant this year that would go to 15 or 25 winning applicants from all corners of the nation, no fewer than 900 school districts wanted in.
The School District of Manatee County was one of those 900 but perhaps took the most unique approach toward the Race to the Top grant, whose stated goal is to "prepare students for college and careers," according to the U.S. Department of Education.
"Most school districts chose to write the grant to middle or high school," Doug Wagner, Director of Adult, Career and Technical Education in Manatee County, said Tuesday. "We were different. In our application, we told the feds we would meet the goal of preparing students for college or career at the level of pre-kindergarten to age 5 and build a foundation of science, math, technology and engineering."
Federal officials, apparently, liked what they read.
On Monday, Manatee was named one of 61 finalists nationwide for the grant, Wagner said.
Among the 61 finalists are five school districts from Florida including Manatee, Charlotte, Seminole, Broward and Miami-Dade, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
If Manatee is one of the winners when the announcement is made by the end of December, the local district would receive $28,722,818.49 over four years, the amount it submitted to the U.S. Department of Education to implement its plans, Wagner said.
Perhaps the most significant of the plans is to offer principals at 44 elementary and charter schools in Manatee County the chance to have a STEM lab, also known as a Science, Math, Technology and Engineering lab, Wagner said.
"STEM labs are hands-on labs where students may design a catapult that launches a marshmallow or make a bridge to see how much weight it can hold before it collapses," Wagner said. "In these labs, students will be applying math and science to solve real-world problems. They will see that engineering is exciting."
Wagner solicited input from the Manatee Education Association, Manatee's teacher and para-professional union, during the grant writing process.
The MEA endorsed this year's application, Pat Barber, MEA president, said Tuesday.
"This has been a team effort," Barber said. "We feel this will provide a foundation for students by the time they come to middle and high school.
"We have STEM labs in some schools already," Barber added. "What we know so far is they do work and there is a lot of enthusiasm from the schools involved."
Several years ago, the MEA did not endorse a similar Race to the Top grant application because it felt what the district would receive was not enough to accomplish its goals, Barber said.
Barber made input in the application to insure that if the grant is won, it is not something else layered on top of what teachers already have to do but rather will be a tool to accomplish what is already required.
"This could be folded into work that already has to be done through common course standards," Barber said.