OGDEN -- The Ogden School District is one of 61 school districts nationwide to be named a finalist to receive a federal Race to the Top grant that could be as much as $29 million.
"I was so excited, I couldn't even think," said district grant writer Kathleen Bideaux.
The district applied for the grant at the end of October and received the news Monday afternoon that the field of 372 had been narrowed to 61.
The federal grant will be given to school districts to help "personalize and deepen student learning, directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student for success in college and careers," according to a Department of Education news release.
Bideaux spent a majority of the fall working with Greg Lewis, who had been a chief administrator in the district before retiring last spring. Lewis came back to help write the grant because of the exacting detail needed for the proposal.
Bideaux said that, in the past, the Race to the Top grants had been given only to states, and Utah had never been selected. This year, the Department of Education changed the rules and allowed individual districts to apply, opening the door for Ogden.
A district had to meet certain qualifications to apply, including having a certain number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Granite and Salt Lake school districts also applied. Salt Lake is also a finalist.
Bideaux said the application process was intense. Usually, grants are program-based, which narrows the focus to a group of students or a specific topic, such as anti-alcohol.
However, for the Race to the Top, the district needed a detailed plan of how the money would be used and how the program would work. That's where Ogden is in good shape.
The district has a history of schools using an exact plan to improve poor reading and math scores. It has also found great success with its Read Today programs.
With both of those plans in place, the district showed how it could wisely use the money to implement those enhanced programs in every school in the district. The district also has an established task force to examine performance-based pay, which is also a key component.
Bideaux said the grant will be used for personalized learning environments and college preparedness for every student.
Superintendent Brad Smith said he's excited the district is a finalist.
"We are halfway there. I hope we get all the way there," he said. "We would have a chance to change education in Ogden for generations to come."
For so long, the district has had to think about programs on a shoestring budget, because money just isn't there.
"Now we could do it robustly," Smith said.
The district has planned to put in place many of the programs outlined in the grant, but it would be over a long time period because funding is an issue. If the district receives the grant, the programs could be implemented sooner.
Bideaux said an important key to the grant was to have the support of the city, as well as of the state superintendent. Both Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell and the state superintendent had to review the grant and sign off on it. It also had to have the approval of the teachers association.
Bideaux said she knows of some districts whose teachers associations would not sign off on the grant request.
Smith hopes the grant will truly put some relevance on performance pay for teachers as well as offer a chance to provide improved one-on-one attention to all students, not just those who are struggling.
"If you tell teachers to totally change everything they are doing and give them $500, it may not be worth it ... but throw $5,000 on the table and that's different," Smith said.
The Department of Education expects to select 15 to 25 winning applications to receive four-year awards ranging from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the population of students served through the plan.
Awards will be announced no later than Dec. 31.
"These finalists are setting the curve for the rest of the country with innovative plans to drive education reform in the classroom," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the statement.
"This competition was designed to support local efforts to close the achievement gap and transform the learning environment in a diverse set of districts, but no matter who wins, children across the country will benefit from the clear vision and track records of success demonstrated by these finalists."