Schools system marks Benwood's impact

The Hamilton County Schools system will receive about $11 million in Race to the Top winnings over the next four years, but other expiring revenue sources could make the next decade difficult, officials said Tuesday.

"If we're going to do the things that need to be done for the kids in Hamilton County, we're going to need some help," Superintendent Jim Scales told a room filled with community leaders. "We're going to need money."

The occasion celebrated the educational impact of the Benwood Initiative, which defines itself as a grant machine "with a laser-like focus on literacy and teacher effectiveness."

Financed by the Benwood Foundation, the program started in 2001 as a five-year, $5 milllion grant to Hamilton County Schools and the Public Education Foundation. The money was distributed to nine elementary schools that finished among the 20 lowest-performing schools in Tennessee, according to an independent research organization.

Officials dubbed the program a success, and a fresh $7.3 million grant began in 2007 with eight additional elementary schools over five more years.

With time running out on the current grant, officials took Tuesday night to "celebrate the accomplishments" and brainstorm ways to expand positive outcomes across the school system.

"Sometimes we don't pat ourselves on the back enough," Dr. Scales said.

About 40 attendees enjoyed a three-course dinner as several principals talked about the grant's effects.

After Woodmore Elementary principal Visa Harper compelled everyone to stand and stretch, she said the grant money made her school more "flexible."

"My teachers steal ideas if they see something great, and they'll let a teacher know when they don't," she said. "You wouldn't have seen that five years ago."

SELECTED BENWOOD FOUNDATION GOALS* Every child will be promoted from 5th grade as a strong reader, a good writer and a skilled solver of a wide range of math problems.* Every school will be led by a visionary team of educators who are experts in instruction and data analysis.* By the end of the initiative, each school will increase the percentage of high performing teachers.* The profile of teachers, as measured by experience, educational attainment and attendance, will be exemplary.Source: Benwood Foundation

Becky Coleman, first-year principal at Calvin Donaldson Elementary, displayed higher test scores she said were the result of Benwood help. Her presentation showed a 70 percent success rate in reading proficiency for 2007, up 12 percent from 2003, she said.

For this year, the display screen showed only a smiley face.

"Although I cannot share that data with you now, we are right on target," she said.

The school system has about a month to complete a plan that will itemize exactly how it will spend $10.9 million in Race to the Top federal funding. Dr. Scales showed off the "multi-page" document that was in draft form.

The superintendent did not go into detail about the plan, choosing to highlight professional development changes and teacher evaluations.

Reminding the audience that the money cannot be used for improvements such as repairing buildings or athletic facilities, Dr. Scales said specifics would be elaborated in a school board work session on Thursday.

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