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National Conference Highlights Federal Grants to Charter Schools

When charter schools and their supporters are looking for federal funds, most head straight for the Office of Innovation and Improvement’s (OII’s) Charter Schools Program (CSP). With a FY 2013 budget of about $242 million, the CSP administers eight grant programs, which have contributed to what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently described as the “extraordinary accomplishments” of charter schools in the past two decades.

Topping the list of accomplishments, Secretary Duncan indicated in his recent keynote address at the National Charter Schools Conference, “is that high-performing charters have irrefutably demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels.”

CSP’s grant programs aim squarely at helping disadvantaged children to achieve academically through the creation of more high-quality educational options. These include the Replication and Expansion for High Performing Charter Schools program, which provides funds for nonprofits, including charter management organizations, to grow existing charter schools or open new ones based on models that have demonstrated success.

But two other highly competitive and high-profile Department of Education grants outside of CSP have similarly supported at-risk children attending charter schools — the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund and the Race to the Top‑District (RTT-D) programs. One session at the national conference focused on these programs, which have allowed charter schools and charter management organizations to grow in number, in impact, and in quality.

Special Education Strides Highlighted at National Charter Schools Conference

In his recent keynote address at the National Charter Schools Conference, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged charter schools to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. “I want to see charters pioneering solutions that do a better job of educating students with disabilities,” he told the gathering last month of more than 4,000 charter school leaders in Washington, D.C.

The conference, organized annually by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, provided a variety of sessions with a special education focus. Was there a common thread? Yes, strong partnerships make for better services for students with disabilities.

Growing Coalition Supports ConnectED

In today’s world, technology has changed and, for the most part, improved the way we do everything from shopping to connecting with friends and family to managing our finances and our healthcare. But for a number of reasons, technology has not yet transformed the way our students learn on a day-to-day basis — at least not on a broad scale. Of course, there are many exciting examples across the country of schools and districts that have harnessed the power of technology to improve student learning, but these are not yet the norm.

One of the main barriers standing in the way is a lack of modern technology infrastructure in our schools that can support exciting and innovative digital-learning opportunities. (Although nearly every classroom in the country has basic Internet connectivity, the majority do not have fast enough bandwidth speeds to support their current needs.) This is why, as part of his ConnectED initiative, President Obama challenged the Federal Communications Commission to modernize the existing E-Rate program to upgrade our schools’ technology infrastructure to support ultrafast broadband speeds.

Promise Neighborhoods Convene to Share and Learn

I was truly inspired by the peer–to-peer learning that quickly developed into the pervasive spirit of this year’s Promise Neighborhoods Directors Meeting. Our annual convening on June 13-14 brought together more than 250 administrators, evaluators, and practitioners to strengthen relationships, forge new ties, and expand our knowledge of how to truly construct a cradle-to-career promise in our communities. Peers shared tips on how to effectively administer the program, apply solutions to nagging community challenges, and effectively use their data to drive results.

Meet OII’s New Leader

I wanted to take the time to introduce myself to all of you and to thank you for stopping by our corner of the Web. Through my work at the Department over the last few years — whether through some of its programs, like Investing in Innovation or Charter Schools, or through other initiatives like encouraging evidence-based funding — as well as through previous roles I held prior to joining the current administration, I have had the great opportunity to meet many of you.

On June 3, 2013, I became the acting assistant deputy secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the Department of Education. Succeeding former Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, who is currently the Department’s acting deputy secretary, will no doubt be challenging, but I am looking forward to the work and rewards that lie ahead.

The Beginning of a Movement

I recently had the opportunity to participate in an action-oriented summit, Reimagining Education: Empowering Learners in a Connected World, co-hosted by the Department of Education and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It was a fascinating event, and I witnessed and participated in what felt like the beginning of a movement.

We know that the world today is more connected than ever. In particular, through advancements in technology, we now can stay connected — to each other, our jobs, our interests, and our passions — essentially all the time. The same ought to be true for our students and their education — students should have learning experiences that relate to and take advantage of their passions and interests. What they learn in an after-school program or activity should inform and relate to what they learn in school. And all of that should extend to what they learn at home with their families. This represents a shift in how we think about learning and education. Learning now happens all the time and everywhere, and we shouldn’t feel bound by narrow conceptions of when and where learning takes place (i.e., in school, during school hours). The challenge going forward will be designing and creating learning experiences for our students that properly match our modern, connected world (both in the literal, technical sense, and the broader, conceptual sense). That was the main challenge tackled by the participants in the Reimagining Education summit.

Breaking Through to a Quality Education for Urban Children

Ten-year-old Roberto had failing grades and discipline problems in his Cleveland, Ohio, school, but his mother had high hopes for him — a quality education that met his particular needs and would help him to be college and career ready. Fortunately for her and Roberto, an expanding network of charter schools in Cleveland, Breakthrough Charter Schools, offered a nurturing environment in its Near West Intergenerational School, one of five new charter schools resulting from an OII Charter Schools Program (CSP) grant awarded to Breakthrough Charter Schools. Roberto’s story is the subject of a CBS News report that aired in late May.

Two Charter Schools Program Competitions Announced

Last year, when the Department announced 20 grants awarded for the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Non-SEA program competitions, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said; "High-quality charter schools across the country are making amazing differences in our children's lives. These grantees serve a range of students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and prepare them for college and careers." The Non-SEA (State education agency) competitions provide support for charter schools located in states that are not receiving funds from the CSP's SEA competition; currently 19 States and the District of Columbia receive SEA funding. Non-SEA grant funds support planning and implementation of program designs for new or existing charter schools or the sharing and dissemination of information about best practices for charter schools.

Last week, CSP announced the start of the 2013 competition with the publication of two Non-SEA notices inviting applicants (NIA) in the Federal Register. Since its inception, CSP has worked to increase understanding of charter schools and to support high-quality charter schools in communities nationwide. The CSP team is excited for that work to continue this year with the non-SEA competitions. The Department plans to award up to $2 million to grantees of both the Non-SEA Planning, Program Design and Implementation and the Non-SEA Dissemination competitions, and estimates making between 10 and 14 awards.

A New Approach to Learning that’s Better Designed for Our Times

“In order to provide the best education in the world again, we must develop educational opportunities and resources that excite and prepare all our students,” is how Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees the challenge for the teachers, school leaders, academics, advocates, and entrepreneurs who attended the Reimagining Education: Empowering Learners in a Connected World conference on May 28-29, in Washington, D.C.

Co-hosted by the Department of Education and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the convening brought together participants from many different sectors to think about and make recommendations for a future in which the latest technologies are available and are an integral part of personalized learning experiences for all students, as well as helping to deliver a major upgrade in teacher professional development and the advanced instructional tools they need. Technology alone won’t solve the challenges the U.S. must meet to be a world leader again in elementary and secondary education, but, as Secretary Duncan noted, “We cannot succeed without it.”

The Power of 3: Reflections on the 2013 i3 Annual Project Directors Meeting

The number 3 dominated the thinking and actions of the more than 400 participants of the annual meeting of the Investing in Innovation (i3) grantees on May 20-21, in Arlington, Va. Let’s start with three examples:

  • They represented three years of funding (2010-2012) for this Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) program that supports the development and scaling of ambitious, effective practices that improve student achievement.

  • The 92 projects represented spanned three levels of federal support for i3 — 59 Development, 28 Validation, and five Scale-up projects.

  • Each project came to the meeting with three objectives: share best practices they have developed as well as challenges they face; learn about evaluation methods and receive technical assistance to improve their evaluations; and explore strategies for sustaining their projects’ impacts through private-sector support.

Almost as if to build on the theme of 3, Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, who led OII’s efforts to create and support i3 as the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement since 2009, encouraged the meeting attendees to share their stories and learn three new ones to take home with them.

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