Manatee Schools apply for Race to the Top grant to expand MTI

eearl@bradenton.comSeptember 25, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District is hoping to win a $28.7 million grant through Race to the Top to expand the Manatee Technical Institute and to add more science, technology, engineering and math education to elementary school classrooms.

The Manatee County School District is one of more than 400 districts in the country applying for a Race to the Top grant.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded 16 grants to school districts around the country. According to last year's score sheets, Manatee County's application came 13th in the nation out of 900 applications in the preliminary round, falling a few places behind the Miami-Dade School District. Manatee fell to 22nd place when the applications were scored again, while Miami-Dade rose to third.

Doug Wagner, the district's director of adult, career and technical education, said the 300-page grant application is reviewed by specialists from across the country.

Wagner said the Manatee district has been working on the application, which is due

Oct. 3, since August. The U.S. Department of Education is expected to announce winners by January.

"They are designed for innovative programs to help students find their learning path," Deputy superintendent of operations Diana Greene said.

Greene and Wagner said the Race to the Top grant will be used to provide science, technology, engineering and math labs, or STEM labs, in every elementary school. The district would also hire between four and five "STEMulators" to coach teachers.

The district also plans on using the grant for a software program for students to access their daily school lessons from home. Greene said this is designed to keep students engaged and from falling behind.

The grant is expected to allow for field trips and for each elementary school teacher to have in-classroom libraries.

The grant could also bring an expansion to the Manatee Technical Institute.

Wagner said part of the $28.7 million would be used to develop a two-story addition to the back of the Manatee Technical Institute called the Technology and Enterprise Career Hub Zone, or "TECH" Zone. The space would be intended for elementary students to have a hands-on experience with STEM education while getting a glimpse of what technical school looks like. Renderings of the addition by Fawley Bryant show labs, a "think tank," showcase area, an "enterprise zone" and a "college experience zone."

If the district wins the grant, the plan for the expansion is to lead visiting students through the TECH Zone as they work together to solve a scenario using basic principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Along with activities, students can learn about what jobs are available in those fields, and the path they could take to eventually get a career in STEM. It would also introduce elementary students to MTI.

Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, said she wrote a letter of endorsement for the grant. What she likes about the grant is that schools will not be forced into the programs, but will be able to customize the STEM programs according to their interests.

"This is crucial for us," Barber said.

The grant application is being written by Greene, Wagner, the district's grant writer Melissa Schwab, the district's curriculum team and elementary school principals.

"It's a district-wide collaborative process," Wagner said.

Wagner said he thinks Manatee County Schools will stand out by planning a program that is designed around elementary students.

"We are breaking out by targeting younger students for STEM rather than high school," Wagner said. "We want to begin building capacity at a young age for math and science."

President Obama introduced the program in 2009, and it is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The total budget for the program is $1.35 billion. The program is designed to help turn around low-performing schools.

The dollar amount of the grants depends on the size of the school districts, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In turn, the number of grants awarded depend on size of the selected school districts, since large school districts are awarded more money. Grants range from $4 million to $10 million for school districts with 2,000 to 5,000 students to up to $30 million for districts with more than 20,001 students.

Scoring criteria for the applications include a district's progress in closing the achievement gap, plans to improve student performance, preparation for adopting Common Core Standards, plans to improve teachers' and principals' performance and intervention with low-performing schools.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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