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North country educators prepare for Race to the Top

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As educators prepare to be trained for major changes coming down the pike, the magnitude of the changes and the funds it will take to implement them are weighing heavily on some north country minds.

“It is highly probable that districts will have to devote significant amounts of local monies, specifically for staff training, to accomplish the goals outlined in the Scope of Work,” Jack J. Boak, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said in an e-mail. “If the funds are depleted but the requirements in the regulation continue, this will become a significant unfunded mandate, and particularly troublesome in an era of declining aid to schools and a 2 percent tax cap.”

The state was awarded $646 million last summer from Race to the Top, a competitive federal grant program. As part of Race to the Top and the state’s new Regents Reform Agenda, a lot of sweeping changes that will affect teachers, administrators and students are coming down at once. School districts must implement the state’s new common core standards, there’s been a major emphasis on returning to the fundamentals of English Language Arts and mathematics and teachers will be evaluated in part on student achievement. Expectations for how students perform on tests and graduation rates have been raised.

This week, educators will be in Albany for the Network Team Summer Institute, where they will be trained on the common core standards and the new evaluation system.

North country school districts each received thousands of dollars as part of the grant program. The Watertown City School District was awarded around $432,000. According to the district’s scope of work, around $324,000 will be put toward the BOCES network team. The network team is a group of specialists in curriculum, instruction and data analysis, through BOCES. This is a similar breakdown of funds for school districts across the state.

“Given the fact that state aid has been dramatically decreasing, this is a project that it seems will be difficult to be sustained as it is now,” Watertown Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said. “I think there’s going to be a cost because it’s going to outrun the funds. That’s where our problem is going to be.”

The state Education Department earlier this month put the scopes of work for each school district on its website. Districts were required to submit a scope of work last year that details the district’s goals for implementing the standards and the funding that has been allocated for accomplishing those goals. Indian River Central School District was allocated around $199,000 from Race to the Top.

Some of the necessary expenditures will come from one of the most costly areas for school districts: personnel. Teachers will need to participate in building-level teams, training and professional development, and substitutes will need to be brought in to take over for them during that time.

“We had to submit a scope of work and budget, but you’re only given so much money,” said Mary Anne Dobmeier, assistant superintendent of the Indian River Central School District. “Is it going to cost more than that? You bet.”

The scopes of work for each school district contain specific baseline data for the proficiency of students in grades four and eight in English Language Arts and mathematics, from the 2009-10 school year. Then there are targets and goals for improvement set by both the state Education Department and the district.

“We’re a district on the needs of improvement list and we’re pretty realistic — we’ll have to move in pretty small increments,” Mr. Fralick said. “It definitely addresses progress, but it’s not in extraordinary leaps and bounds. We’ve learned that’s very difficult.”

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