Racing to the top again — this time Maine takes strides to win

Posted Aug. 24, 2011, at 7:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Last year Maine lost a chance to win millions of federal grant dollars for education. This year, the Department of Education is sure it will do better with its application for the $50 million in Race to the Top funds for which it qualifies.

This year’s competitive program is limited to early education, up to grade three, whereas last year’s money was for kindergarten through 12th-grade programs.

This year the federal Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants systems in place to track the success of early learning programs and to track how youngsters perform in school as a result of those programs. Maine already is doing some of this, according to Jaci Holmes, the federal liaison for Maine’s Department of Education.

Maine received its application on Tuesday, so Holmes said although the state’s Education Department doesn’t have its strategies written in stone yet, the idea will be to enhance what the state is doing already.

For instance, the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge wants applicants to show they have set standards for children from birth to age 5. Maine implemented those in 2004.

With federal money, Maine could retool that system to more closely align with its kindergarten though 12th-grade standards.

Last year, when Maine placed 33 out of 36 applications for grant money, the state was told it didn’t get enough local support for its plans. The Maine Department of Education has learned from this, Holmes said.

“Stakeholder input will be critical,” she said. “We really want to look at engaging our stakeholders in a dialogue. And one expectation for this application is that we will have letters of support from communities.”

Sometime next week, the Maine Department of Education plans to give some sort of webinar featuring its preliminary plans to people working in early education around the state. Those people will be encouraged to give feedback on the plan before it’s submitted by the Oct. 19 deadline.

According to the federal Department of Education, the goal of these grant funds is to “better prepare more children with high needs for kindergarten because children from birth to age 5, including those from low-income families, need a strong foundation for success in school and beyond.”

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services will team up with the Department of Education to fill out the 119-page application. Maine DHHS already has programs for children from birth to age 5 who are in low-income families.

It’s to the agencies’ benefit to collaborate. According to the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge executive summary, “[the funds] will support states that demonstrate their commitment to integrating and aligning resources and policies across all of the state agencies that administer public funds related to early learning and development.”

To do this well, the two departments must work hand-in-hand. Patti Woolley, director of Maine DHHS’ Early Childhood Division, said even if Maine again gets zero dollars in grant money, the collaboration has been valuable.

“Whether Maine is successful in getting an award or not, the dialogue and planning and the discussions that have had to happen [between Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education] as a result of this are going to move the system forward,” Woolley said. “It’s a positive impetus in pushing people forward.”

Early Learning Challenge goals

The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge asks states to show that they can meet the following goals:

Priority one (absolute priority): Promote school readiness for children with high needs.

Priority two (competitive priority): Include all early learning and development programs in the tiered quality rating and improvement system.

Priority three (competitive priority): Understand the status of children’s learning and development at kindergarten entry.

Priority four (invitational priority): Sustain program effects in the early elementary grades.

Priority five (invitational priority): Encourage private-sector support.

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