Fayette schools’ fed stimulus money being used to decrease achievement gaps

Reported in Kentucky Herald-Leader :: Friday, Dec. 18, 2009

Thanks to the federal stimulus program, individual public schools in Fayette County are getting grants of up to $10,000 each for “wish list” items to boost programs for special education students.

The money is part of the roughly $16 million the school system is getting under the federal government’s economic stimulus program.

Fayette is receiving a little more than $8 million through each of two federal programs: Title I, which serves economically disadvantaged children; and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which is aimed at students with disabilities. Not all the money has been allocated.

Statewide, schools are getting more than $320 million in stimulus money through the two programs, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.

The Fayette Public Schools have earmarked roughly $500,000 in stimulus money for grants to the district’s 52 schools for special education. To get a grant, each school must submit a proposal to help special education students excel. A school can get up to $10,000.

Tates Creek High School, for example, is getting $10,000 worth of laptop computers. Lexington Traditional Magnet School wants a $9,900 mobile computer lab, and Jessie Clark Middle School is getting $10,000 worth of educational software. Most material won’t be delivered until after the first of the year.

Jack Hayes, the Fayette Schools’ director of student achievement support, said the county district will allocate about half of the stimulus it’s getting from the disabilities act — or around $4 million — to temporarily pick up the salaries of special education teachers. The idea, he says, will free up local district funds that would have been used for salaries, and make that money available for other purposes.

“We aren’t creating any new positions. When the stimulus money is gone, we would go back to paying the salaries with our own funds,” Hayes said.

Superintendent Stu Silberman said district officials are still discussing how the district dollars that are freed up will be used. The plan has raised concerns among some parents of special education students who fear that local funding for special education might decline in the process.

“Our fear is that once the stimulus money runs out, local funding for special education will come back at a lower level than it was before,” said Lexington’s Melanie Tyner-Wilson, who has a disabled child. “Special needs kids could lose out.”

But Kathy Dykes, the Fayette Schools’ special education director, thinks the fears are groundless.

“I just don’t see that happening, knowing this school district,” she said.

In addition to grants to schools, Dykes said, about $1.2 million in stimulus money is going for the purchase of books, training and educational software to help special education students improve their reading and math and become more physically active.

Finally, special education teachers, speech therapists and others involved with special education are getting $500 in stimulus money each to buy instruction materials and supplies for their classrooms, Dykes said.

Silberman said district officials are open to ideas from the public and parents on how to spend stimulus dollars for special education that have not yet been earmarked. Ideas can be submitted to Dykes or through the special education Parents Advisory Council, he said.

Paula Whitmer, the Fayette Schools Title I coordinator, says there also are several plans for spending the district’s Title I stimulus money. For example, about $2.7 million is going directly to enhance instruction and close achievement gaps in Fayette’s 28 Title I schools, which have large populations of low-income children. Some money also will go to help students district wide, Whitmer said.

Schools are using that money for everything from professional development for teachers, to hiring extra teachers to buying new educational software and “Singapore math” textbooks to help move low-income students toward proficiency, Whitmer said.

Money also is earmarked for summer school programs next year to assist elementary, middle and high school students who are falling short of proficiency. Another $2.5 million from the stimulus package is being set aside for professional development for teachers across the district. All the money must be spent by the end of next school year.

“We’re hoping that when the money is gone our achievement gaps will be gone, or will be much smaller, and that our students are achieving at proficiency level or higher,” Whitmer said. “That’s the goal.”

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