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Christine Couch has a plan to change Hixson High School, and she's finally got the money to do it.

As she was winding down last school year, the principal discovered she was eligible for federal school improvement grants to the tune of $600,000 a year for the next four years.

"This is huge. It's really exciting," she said.

RACE TO THE TOP

The following Hamilton County schools will receive a portion of Tennessee's Race to the Top grant. Race to the Top was funded through President Barack Obama's stimulus package.

* Achievement School District: $666,000 per year, for four years

Howard School of Academics and Technology

* Tier II school: $600,000 per year, for four years

Hixson High School

* Focus schools: $6,000 per year, for four years

Calvin Donaldson Elementary

Central High

Clifton Hills Elementary

East Ridge Middle

Lookout Valley Middle-High

Ooltewah High

Orchard Knob Middle

Red Bank High

Sequoyah High

Soddy-Daisy High

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Under recent federal education reform efforts -- first No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top -- Howard School of Academics and Technology has gotten the greatest amount of state and federal attention and money, because for years it has failed to meet benchmarks under NCLB, a classification that came with extra resources but also with partial state control and a mandate to improve.

Although Howard still will receive almost $700,000 per year for the four years of the Race to the Top grant -- and next year will be taken over by the state Department of Education if it doesn't show significant improvement -- new levels of accountability under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top creation also will give a financial boost to schools such as Hixson High.

With Race to the Top, Duncan and President Barack Obama wanted to target public schools that had met Adequate Yearly Progress -- which Hixson has done -- but still were "persistently low-achieving."

Hixson falls into that category -- known as Tier II -- because its math scores over the past five years are in the lowest 5 percent of non-Title I high schools in the state. About 85 percent of the school's students scored at or above grade level in math standardized tests in 2009, records show.

Plan rewritten

To be eligible for the money, Couch had to rewrite her school's improvement plan to show exactly how the money would help Hixson perform better academically. Because money has not yet been released from the Tennessee Department of Education, Hamilton County Schools fronted Couch the money to pay for:

* A curriculum coach to work with teachers on how to teach in 90-minute blocks and how to pace lessons;

* A graduation coach to work with students on course-credit recovery to increase the school's graduation rate;

* An in-school suspension monitor so students who are being disciplined can still be in school, learning;

* A full-time college access coordinator to get students focused on postsecondary schooling.

When the rest of Couch's money comes through, she hopes to hire an additional English teacher to alleviate overcrowding, bring in business people and retirees to offer tutoring, and to update technology.

Although she knows it's likely Hixson won't be able to continue paying for the added positions once the grant money is gone, she believes the four years will be worth it, and, she hopes, enough to see sustainable growth.

"Once they're gone, I'll be short that position ... but they're positions all [high school principals] wish we had full time," she said.

In addition to Hixson, state officials have identified 10 "focus schools" that each will receive $6,000 per year for the next four years. Each school is in the third or fourth year of not meeting annual goals, or making Adequate Yearly Progress.

Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman Amanda Maynord Anderson said the money for the focus schools is a "stop-gap measure" to ensure the schools don't get worse.

Hamilton County Schools Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz said that, as of last week, he was still waiting for the money to be released from the state.

One of the focus schools is Central High. Principal Finley King said he plans to use his money to provide stipends to some of his teachers. In exchange, they will provide before- and after-school tutoring and credit recovery classes.

Central has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress because of its graduation rate, which was 79.3 percent in 2009, the last year for which data is available. King believes the extra help outside the school day will help more students make it to graduation.

King said he also will continue emphasizing his ninth-grade academy.

"One of the key ingredients to getting a kid to graduate is making them successful in ninth grade," he said. "If you can get a kid to go from ninth grade to 10th grade, they will graduate."

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