Investing in Our Students: An Interview with the Top-Scoring Grant Applicant from Investing in Innovation
Friday, April 15, 2011
Regina Renaldi is the Executive Director of Priority Programs at St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado. St. Vrain received the highest scoring application in the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant competition. Ms. Renaldi was generous enough to sit down and discuss with us the i3 grant and St. Vrain's grantseeking in general. Below is our conversation.
St. Vrain received the highest-scoring application on the Recovery Act-funded Investing in Innovation program. Can you tell us a bit about your project and what you hope to accomplish with the grant funds?
St. Vrain Valley SD is implementing a plan for addressing and targeting the unmet needs of at-risk students; specifically Hispanic and ELL students at Skyline High School and its feeder schools. Our strategy is to provide students with a sequence of focused interventions to reduce the achievement gap. We have designed a system that brings supports and an augmented school year for elementary students to build a literacy foundation. The system then shifts focus to the mathematics foundation in middle schools, with math labs and an augmented school year to build stronger mathematics skills. At the high school level we provide students with a science focus through a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) certification track. We have designed a program that brings data-driven decision making and information technology integration through our Digital Learning Collaborative which is accessible throughout the K-12 system of targeted schools. Our plan is to increase the graduation rate at Skyline High School especially for our Hispanic students and improve overall proficiency levels for at risk students in reading at the elementary level and math at the middle school level.
What do you think were some of the top factors that contributed to your success with the I3 proposal?
Our project was awarded as a development grant which means that we had data that supported our hypothesis that this initiative would result in improved student performance in reading and math. The success of our project was based on several previous successes in St. Vrain School District. The math intervention we proposed was implemented the previous year through a Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) Grant through the Colorado Department of Education, resulting in improved performance by ninth graders following the intervention. One of our CTAG goals was the improvement of ninth graders in overall performance in Algebra I. We improved the success rate of ninth graders in Algebra I from 62% of students passing in Year One to 92% passing in Year Two. The curriculum and expectations for students remained the same but the success improved appreciably with implementation of a math intervention called Navigator for at risk students. At the elementary level, we implemented an augmented school year at two of our now identified i3 schools. Following a seven week literacy intervention in the summer we experienced six months of growth for 56% of our students. This excellent pre i3 intervention data contributed to the success of our proposal. The strength of our application can also be attributed to the support we accessed through our collaboration with Grants Office. Their experience with grant writing and focus on the questions posed supported the strength of our project and thus the success and strength of our i3 proposal.
What is the process for developing a project like this? For example, do teachers bring a project idea to you or is there a specific team of individuals who research and identify new initiatives?
Often, the District identifies key initiatives to support student learning and academic progress. When these key initiatives are identified, leadership at the district level reviews project needs and begins the process of exploring possibilities for funding these key initiatives and developing them to align with district goals and vision. Teachers and leaders who have expertise in the areas of focus are assembled to develop ideas that include research and innovation that would support the project. For St. Vrain Valley School District, it is imperative that all projects align with district goals and vision.
Developing these kinds of projects and seeking funding/applying for grants requires the involvement of a lot of stakeholders - teachers, administration, grant writers, etc. Do you have any advice for schools just beginning this process in keeping everyone coordinated and committed to the project?
Our experience with grants has provided us with strong foundational understandings of the necessary protocols for grant development and administration. We have learned that it is important to define a lead person for each grant initiative. Next, a team of knowledgeable contributors needs to be assembled based on their expertise regarding the grant focus. Teachers, administrators, students, community stakeholders and local business concerns need to be part of the grant writing team. The grant manager needs to be the lead regarding the initial grant writing process. Communication and development of a timeline for writing, editing, reviewing, rewrites, and submission need to be made available to all team members. It has been helpful to use a common site or shared folder for feedback opportunities that is readily accessible by all participants to include edit opportunities and pertinent research documents that would support the grant focus. Also, there must be a plan for data management and data review and reporting as part of every grant plan. Data is key to reporting and a strong relationship with a district’s assessment department is essential so that data collection can be aligned with the grant parameters and reporting requirements.
In terms of grantseeking for these projects, do you develop projects in response to a new grant programs or develop the details of the project first and then seek grant funding?
We have found that aligning our district goals with available grants is not as effective as finding grants with parameters and focus that align with current district goals and vision. That way we are funding initiatives that are meaningful rather than beginning too many projects that diminish the capacity of the district to meet its identified and data-driven goals.
Based on your experience with grant funding and expertise in K-12 education, what do you think are going to be some key areas of interest for grant funding in the future (for example, STEM, education technology, professional development, etc)?
We are certain that STEM will continue to be an area of focus for grants in the coming years. The data on the development of STEM-related careers and job opportunities makes that focus one that will continue to be of importance. We also believe that another key area of interest will be augmented school year planning. It is clear that students need more time. This is not only a need for students who are at risk but also for students who would benefit from enrichment opportunities. Lastly, we believe that the development of online learning opportunities will be a focus in the near future. Meeting the needs of all students is a goal for schools and traditional seat time is no longer essential for students in terms of academic success. The traditional brick and mortar school may not be necessary for all learners.
Some school districts view grant funding warily due to reporting requirements. Can you describe your experience with the actual administration of grants? How manageable is it for schools?
Managing grants and reporting requirements are possible when there is a plan that is part of the grant from its inception. Agreements and data management plans need to be established before the grant is submitted. Reporting requirements are varied and can be time consuming if there is not an organized plan for their collection and review. Most large grants require the inclusion of a professional evaluator. Often that evaluator is crucial to the organization and management of the grant reporting and data. Evaluators have the expertise to provide support to the district in managing resources and data. It is also helpful to have the support of the district finance office. They can be instrumental in providing reports that can make the administration of the grant more manageable.
Any last thoughts or advice for new grantseeking schools/organizations?
Define your key initiatives and remain focused on reaching identified goals through grant resources. Use them as supplements to general funding when additional resources will support those goals. Define a way to sustain whatever you learn during the grant time frame. Sustainability is the key to grant projects. Most foundations and grant programs will be your start up funds, but are looking for specific ways in which an organization will maintain programs after the grant funding ends.