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Pinellas schools await word on tech cash

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County public schools are inching closer toward securing a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that Superintendent Michael Grego said would “totally transform the school district.”

A team from the district presented a final application to the Gates Foundation on Jan.  31, Grego said, which included research on how personalized learning improves students’ academic performance, plans for implementing technology in classrooms, and an inspirational video to “tug at the heartstrings” of foundation officials.

The decision is expected to come around Feb. 28.

The awards will be in various amounts, and in all the foundation will give out $10 million, funding about 50 schools.

“I hear it went great, and I couldn’t be prouder of the proposals we’ve created,” Grego said. “We heard wonderful feedback from other districts that were there, and even if we don’t get the funding, at least now we have a road map for helping those students that struggle learning during a traditional school day.”

Funding amounts from the foundation will vary based on individual proposals and needs, but the grant would provide enough money to a district to redesign schools into centers of personalized learning, where lessons are technology-driven and tailored to each student’s skills.

If the school district won the grant, it would open a stand-alone “incubator” high school in 2015-16 where students would learn in groups, on iPads and with other state-of-the-art, one-on-one technologies, said Executive Director of High School Education Rita Vasquez.

Similar pilot programs would also launch in four of the school district’s 16 traditional high schools, where parents and students would have devices to take home.

Programs would be in place to track progress toward graduation and to simplify planning for college acceptance and beyond, Vasquez said.

By 2030, all Pinellas public schools could follow the model.

In a districtwide poll to assess school’s needs, every principal said about 25 percent to 30  percent of their students don’t learn well in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, Vasquez said.

The answer, Vasquez said, lies in new technologies that make learning an interactive process, as well as having classes that focus on what a student wants to do after graduation, from auto mechanics to veterinary sciences.

“We want to create a menu of options for our kids, so they can choose if they want to learn online, in a classroom, by doing more hands-on learning,” Vasquez said. “We need a system of student-centered learning, where kids have a hand not only in the way the curriculum is taught, but in developing the curriculum as well, saying, ‘This is the interest I have because of the community I live in, or what I want to do after high school.’ ”

Pinellas initially applied for the Gates grant in August, and in September was one of 20 school districts out of 200 to win about $100,000 from the foundation to create a strategic plan to try to obtain a larger grant.

That money went to a full-time project manager, a “systems design team” to create a vision for how they would implement personalized learning in schools, and a “needs assessment” survey with administrators, teachers, principals and school staff to see which areas the school district needed to improve.

Every principal and teacher surveyed said they would join an effort to create more “personalized learning.”

That enticed a top administrator with the Gates Foundation to spend a week with the design team to provide feedback and help with the district’s application, Vasquez said.

Dan Evans, principal of Dixie Hollins High School and design team member, said: “We’re getting pretty personalized already with school choice and giving students tons of programs to capture their interests and help them achieve their goals for the future. I think that’s why this grant has received so much interest from principals. If we can take the next step, if we can go there, then the world needs to watch out.”

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