3 Valley districts lead 'Race to Top' bid

Three Fresno County school districts are taking a lead role in helping California try again for a new round of federal stimulus money for education reform.

Fresno, Clovis and Sanger unified school districts have joined with districts in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Francisco to form a working group, state education officials announced Friday. The group's collective enrollment totals more than 1 million.

Together, the districts will help write the state application for potentially hundreds of millions in federal funding from a program called "Race to the Top."

"California is still in the Race to the Top," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said Friday.

At stake is as much as $700 million that could come to the state as part of President Barack Obama's education reform package. If the application succeeds, all districts that agree to terms of the new application would share the money.

California, like most other states, failed to win the first round of funding -- a pot of about $4.35 billion. Only Delaware and Tennessee were chosen.

Federal officials encouraged California leaders, who were about to give up, to try again. O'Connell said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave assurances that California's application "would receive due consideration."

The state is trying a new approach this time by involving superintendents whose districts are viewed as innovators at boosting student achievement. The districts also have been strong supporters of Race to the Top.

The superintendents met in Los Angeles on Friday along with state education officials and consultants who helped other states in the application process.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson was at the meeting but referred questions to the state education office. Clovis Unified Superintendent David Cash could not be reached for comment.

Sanger Unified Superintendent Marcus Johnson provided little detail of the meeting as he headed home from Los Angeles.

He said it wrapped up in just over two hours.

He said he was just glad that Sanger -- a rural district with 10,500 students -- was included in the same group as some of the state's largest districts. "It's an honor to be at the table," Johnson said.

State education officials said the districts -- especially Fresno, Long Beach and Los Angeles -- were early supporters in the first try for federal funds.

Clovis, Sanger and San Francisco also supported the effort and were encouraged to join the group.

The state wanted a manageable number of districts for the working group and a mix of rural and urban districts, said Bonnie Reiss, secretary of education for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We are going with a group of motivated superintendents," she said.

Reiss said the six districts all have good data systems and already are tying teacher performance to student achievement -- something stressed in Obama's reform package. She also said most of the districts are working collaboratively with local unions, which will help the state's application.

Fresno Unified's partnership with Long Beach played a role in its inclusion in the working group, said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.

Two years ago, Fresno Unified joined with Long Beach to share information and teaching methods to figure out which programs work -- and which don't -- to close the achievement gap for minorities.

Sanger was included because its academic achievements caught the attention of state officials.

"Sanger has had some really great successes and that's why they are part of it," McLean said. She also said Sanger has a good relationship with its union, which will be helpful for the application.

Meanwhile, Clovis and the other districts are considered progressive districts, she said.

Key for the working group is devising a memorandum of understanding that other districts in the state would be asked to sign.

In the first round, fewer than half the state's school districts signed California's MOU for the funding because of concern about reforms.

However, state officials said they are prepared to move forward this time with the application if only the six districts now in the working group sign up.

"This approach is different because it is being done with the superintendents right up front," Reiss said.

"This gives us our best shot at winning -- even though it's a long shot," she said.

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