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School system applies for $30M grant for personalized education plan

CONYERS -- Over the next several years, Rockdale County schools may seem more like a university than a traditional public school system.

Rockdale County Public Schools recently submitted a federal grant application for nearly $30 million in Race to the Top funds.

The funds are intended in part to help the system create an equitable and efficient system of school choice at each level, which is in line with the system's strategic plan.

So far, system officials have held initial discussions between the superintendent and his cabinet members with representatives from the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, according to Leslie DeMarco, chief academic officer in the Office of Teaching & Learning at RCPS.

She said RCPS is seeking more ways to benefit the school community and also has formed a task force to explore the process. In the future, the task force will include more school and community members.

"We know we already have specialty options working well in our system," she said.

Options include schools like the Rockdale Career Academy and the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology.

"We want to expand on that and see if there are other options," DeMarco said. "We don't want to limit ourselves."

Options will include schools and programs for all students and some criteria-based academic programs like the Magnet School that may focus on rigorous areas like science and technology.

"We still have to build as we go. We're going to take it slow," said RCPS Superintendent Richard Autry, citing that financial considerations can hinder programs.

Next year, a feeder program is being developed at Honey Creek Elementary School and Memorial Middle School to eventually get students to the Magnet School, focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM. Some of the program already is being funded through a separate RTT grant previously awarded to RCPS.

C.J. Hicks Elementary also is attempting to develop an advanced international baccalaureate charter program. It would focus on such practices as creative and service-oriented activities; having a mandatory second language acquisition; requiring parental support and time commitment; and providing rigorous and ongoing professional training and development.

Such programs are expected to fit into the district's plan, called Personalized Learning Assures College/Career Empowerment for Students, or PLACES, according to Gene Baker, assistant superintendent for School Improvement in RCPS.

With the project, RCPS is attempting to personalize education for all students in their schools by building the four areas supported in the federal RTT initiative: a common core curriculum, effective teachers and leaders, logical data systems and technology and turnaround schools. It also is meant to accelerate students' learning, close achievement gaps, prepare students to master skills required for college and career readiness, provide students the opportunity to pursue a rigorous course of study and create opportunities for students to identify and pursue areas of personal academic interest.

It is expected to allow the exploration of student interests, increased rigor, exposure to student-selected pathways of student and post-secondary preparation, according to Baker.

Such a program could allow RCPS to use a university model. It would create speciality schools and feeder programs, like how the STEM program already is being developed by each level of school -- elementary, middle and high -- focusing on a particular program.

Programs of study could include business and innovation, advanced academics, visual and performing arts and world languages and global studies.

Autry said the framework for such a project is fluid and dynamic and subject to much change.

RCPS received more than 20 letters of support for the project from people like U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson and state Sen. Ron Ramsey.

The grant awards are expected to be announced in December. The grant funds are anticipated to be available by the beginning of the year.

The grant also seeks further funding for early learning initiatives in RCPS and the STARS community partnership.

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