Oklahoma Schools 'Race to the Top' for Stimulus Funds
By Jennifer Loren, The Oklahoma Impact Team
TULSA, Oklahoma -- Many people agree education is the key to our future. Oklahoma has an opportunity to get their share of $4.3 billion in federal stimulus money to spend on education, but to get it, the state has to compete in the race of a lifetime.
It's called the "Race to the Top" fund, and it's part of President Obama's stimulus package. The White House said this is a race that could change the country’s education systems as we know them.
Race to the Top sounded like a great idea to Natalie Ford. She has two children in Oklahoma public schools. She said she sees the world changing around them.
"A lot of the kids are thinking differently," Ford said.
What Ford does not see is Oklahoma schools keeping up.
"They think an entirely different way. The environments have changed. The economic landscapes have changed, and I think that there do need to be new and introspective ways of teaching to reach some of these kids," Ford said.
"This is truly, I believe, a crisis," said Kathy Taylor, the current Tulsa Mayor.
As Governor Brad Henry’s soon-to-be Advisor on Education Strategy and Innovation, Kathy Taylor said she sees this same problem every day, only on a different level.
"Public education isn't working for way too many kids," Taylor said.
As the former Secretary of Commerce and Tulsa Mayor she said she has seen countless businesses leave Oklahoma because there simply aren't enough educated people here. That has been devastating our economy.
"We've had companies in this city for the last several years who've said, 'I would hire 40 more engineers if I could find them.' The impact on our economy would have been amazing, but we weren't prepared," Taylor said.
With the Race to the Top fund, President Obama is following up on his campaign promise, offering up change on a $4.3 billion stimulus-funded platter. The stimulus money will go to the states which have the best ideas to reform their education systems, but the change Obama is looking for must be on a grand scale.
"We're talking about something that's very bold," Taylor said.
To compete for the money the state must create new initiatives in four areas:
• Standards and assessments
• Data systems to support instruction
• Great teachers and leaders
• Turning around struggling schools
At many schools across Oklahoma, change and innovation are already happening in classrooms from tools that keep kids organized to new technology like smart boards. At Wilson Middle School in Tulsa the principal embraces new ideas and technology and wants more of it.
"We have to have kids prepared for jobs that are available now and jobs that we don't even know about in the future," said Caleb Starr, Middle School Principal.
In fact, Principal Starr is pushing to get rid of big, expensive textbooks. He wants all of his students to have smart books. Smart books are small computers that would house all of the students' books and a whole lot more. Each computer has a webcam built-in and, he said, would actually be cheaper than books in the long run. Starr said he hopes to one-day use the smartbooks to bring his students speakers from places like China. He said the technology would enhance not just his foreign language classes, but all of his classes, in some way.
"The Race to the Top is not the idea that we catch up with everybody. It's a race to be the first one to the top, and so we want to be the first one to the top," Principal Starr said.
To get there, a statewide steering committee will now harvest the best ideas and successful programs and create a bold and aggressive plan to win the race to the top.
"This has to be something that our state as a whole says we're ready to not be at the bottom of the rankings. We want to be at the top, and to do that, it can not be business as usual," Taylor said.
The due date for Race to the Top grant applications has not been set. But we do know states will have just 60 days to pull their applications together once they get instructions from the White House.