Lindsay Unified wins $10 million Race to the Top grant

LINDSAY -- The small Lindsay Unified School District has won a big federal jackpot -- $10 million over four years from the U.S. Department of Education's Race To The Top program.

A fierce competition for the grants of about $400 million nationwide ended Tuesday with the announcement of 16 winners out of 372 applicants. The grants are meant to reward schools working on innovative ways to boost student achievement.

The Lindsay school district in rural eastern Tulare County is one of only three districts statewide to win. Fresno, Clovis and Central unified districts all failed to make the first cut.

"As a board member, it's very overwhelming," said Robert Hurtado, a member of the Lindsay Unified Board of Trustees. "I'm an ex-football coach. I know what it feels like when you win and you've got tough competition."

The 4,100-student district has developed a "performance-based" education program where students are called "learners" and progress at their own pace.

The goal is to prepare "every learner for success in college and careers," Superintendent Tom Rooney said at a news conference.

The grant money will be used to hire staff and pay consultants to train teachers and administrators in perfecting the performance-based system, Rooney said.

Money also will be used to compile a digital archive of information for students and teachers to tap into day or night by computer.

"This is absolutely a game changer in how fast we can build this system," Rooney said. Lindsay Unified has an annual budget of about $35 to $40 million, so the grant is a huge boost.

In performance-based education, students learn at their own speed and take tests only after showing that they know the subject matter and are likely to pass with a 3 or better on a 0 to 4 scale, administrators said.

At Washington Elementary, a kindergarten through eighth grade school, it's popular with students and teachers.

"It's the kid's own pace," said Ikonkar Khalsa, 12, a seventh-grader excelling in math, science and history. Once a week, she joins an eighth grade class to learn more about the three subjects, she said.

Math teacher Debbie Efseaff spent part of her day Tuesday at a half-round desk teaching pre-algebra to three students while others worked on their own or in small groups.

"I absolutely love this system," Efseaff said. "It allows for the student to move fast and they're not waiting."

Heriberto Vasquez, 10, said, "It benefits me. I'm in fifth grade but it allows me to do sixth-grade math."

When a student passes a test and is ready to move on to the next lesson, the success of passing boosts confidence, said Principal Cinnamon Scheufele.

"Tracking their own learning causes an amazing increase in motivation," Scheufele said.

Teacher Luis Gonzalez said that traditionally, tests are given to all students at a set time, but with performance-based learning, "I give the 'end of topic' test when the student is ready."

"We all learn at different paces," said Charlene Jovel, a fifth-grade teacher.

Students color in squares on a chart when they've learned a topic and passed the test for it, which creates a friendly competition, she said.

"They want to color that piece of the chart," Jovel said.

Lindsay's scores on the standardized API tests have increased 91 points from 2009 to 2012, the district says. That includes an increase in ninth-grade English Language Arts proficiency, from 29% of students in 2009 to 41% in 2012.

The two other district in California to win grants were Galt Joint Union Elementary and New Haven Unified School District in Union City.

Galt, with 3,800 students and a $28 million annual budget, will use its $10 million grant to adopt "personalized learning plans" for every student, said Superintendent Karen Schauer. Options include classroom learning, virtual learning and "community learning environments" such as a river nature preserve, she said.

At New Haven, the district will use its $29 million to buy minicomputer tablets for every sixth through 12th grade student and concentrate on reading and math, among other things, according to the district's website.