Some Williamsburg County schools not eligible for $13 million federal grant

KINGSTREE, S.C. — Hemingway-area schools and D.P. Cooper Elementary will not be eligible for any of the $12.9 million in federal Race to the Top (RTT) dollars the U.S. Department of Education awarded Williamsburg County School District in December.

The district applied for the grant as part of a group of South Carolina school districts which included Clarendon School District Two, Richland School District Two, and Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five. The group called itself the Carolina Consortium for Enterprise Learning (CCEL), and received more than $24.9 million in RTT funding as a whole.

Three of the districts in the consortium did not include all respective schools in the grant application.

Jo Ann Webb with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Outreach confirmed shortly after the awarding of the grants that if a school was not included in the grant application, it was not eligible for the funding.

Richland Two has 30 schools in its district, only four of which were a part of the application. Orangeburg Five has 15 schools and included just three. Williamsburg, which had 11 schools that could be included in the grant, did not include Hemingway schools or D.P. Cooper Elementary. Clarendon Two only has five schools and all were included.

The Williamsburg district chose not to include Hemingway schools in the grant application because at the time of school selection in August Hemingway schools were, essentially, performing too well, Gail Widner, who facilitated the grant application, said.

D.P. Cooper is upset over the school’s exclusion from the grant.

The district said the school, which was recently granted permission to convert to a charter school in 2014-15, opted out of participating in the grant. And a D.P. Cooper administrator said the school did not opt out and was always under the impression it would be included.

La-Diné Williams-Gamble, Williamsburg’s coordinator of grants, parenting and after school programs, headed up a team of district personnel in gathering information for the CCEL grant application. Williams-Gamble’s team, along with corresponding teams at the other three districts, consulted Widner, with Business Communications Consulting, in putting the RTT grant application together. Widner spent nearly 10 years as director of grants at the S.C. Department of Education.

Widner said Thursday morning she had suggested to all districts to not include charter schools in the application for RTT funding because those schools, by definition, have autonomy within a district. A part of being awarded the grant involves an agreement amongst districts and schools to adhere to a four-year plan of action while receiving the grant plus three subsequent years of surveying.

“And because charter schools have that autonomy, you can’t guarantee it,” she said. “You can’t make the school follow what the other schools in the district are doing. That’s just the reality. (D.P. Cooper was) given information they needed to sign on and that never happened. That would have been an internal district conversation.”

D.P. Cooper Principal Kerry Singleton claims that conversation never happened.

Williams-Gamble said Dec. 18, the day the U.S. Department of Education announced the five winners of RTT funding, D.P. Cooper had chosen not to participate in the grant application process by not responding to a request explicitly indicating an interest in doing so. The same day, Singleton said neither he nor anyone else at the school had declined to participate or had been approached with the notion.

Thursday morning, Williams-Gamble said she had visited with Singleton and brought a letter, which she described as a contract, outlining the rules and regulations D.P. Cooper would need to follow in order to be included in the grant. She said she informed Singleton the letter needed to be signed and returned to the district.

After not hearing from D.P. Cooper, Williamsburg’s grant team decided to move on without the school, Williams-Gamble said. At a meeting with all CCEL districts represented, the team informed Widner that D.P. Cooper had opted out. Widner said time was of the essence in preparing the grant application.

Singleton vehemently denied that he or his school opted out of the grant application.

“D. P. Cooper Elementary School’s administration never received any hand-delivered contract for participation in the Race to the Top Grant by La-Diné Gamble during a meeting,” he said. “I ask the district administration to provide documentation to show evidence of D.P. Cooper Elementary School’s refusal to participate in the Race to the Top Grant. A ‘face-to-face’ meeting between D. P. Cooper Elementary School’s administration and La-Diné Gamble never occurred in regards to ‘opting in’ or ‘opting out’ of the Race to the Top Grant.

“It was the understanding of D. P. Cooper Elementary School’s administration that our school was included in this Race to the Top Grant as we were included in the previous Race to the Top Grant application with the other schools in the Williamsburg County School District.”

Singleton was referring to the district’s application for RTT funding the previous school year, which was done as a singular district and included all Williamsburg County schools. The district was not awarded any funding for that application.

Williams-Gamble said Thursday she had a copy of the letter she delivered to Singleton, adding she did not understand why there would be any confusion over the meeting. She could not immediately locate the letter, but maintained the file’s existence and said she would speak with Williamsburg Superintendent Yvonne Jefferson-Barnes about the matter.

On Jan. 15, Barnes said she was aware of “the fact that a request was made to D.P. Cooper,” in regard to participating in the grant application process.

Singleton continued to suggest he believed his school was excluded purposefully because of its conversion to a charter school. Jefferson-Barnes said any such suggestion was simply not true.

As for the three Hemingway schools’ exclusion from the grant, Widner said when it comes down to applying for grants, districts must focus on marketability, or competitiveness. Unfortunately for Hemingway, the three schools’ above-average performance would have degraded the CCEL grant application’s competitiveness.

Widner said the consortium chose to apply for the grant using “feeder systems” in each district rather than including all schools. A feeder system comprises all schools that make up a pre-kindergarten – 12th grade system. For example, Hemingway Elementary, Hemingway M.B. Middle and Hemingway High School make up a feeder system.

“We chose feeder systems because we thought we could affect greater change there,” she said. “Also, some of the winning districts just chose middle schools or just high schools. But, our rationale was we don’t want to transform middle schools, because we want to create a continuing program for students.”

In the beginning, all four districts agreed to one “slot” per district for a feeder system to include in the grant. Clarendon Two only has one feeder system, and it was the only district that was able to include all of its schools in the application.

Widner said that including more students in the grant application meant more funding for which the consortium could apply. Due to high poverty levels but low enrollment levels, the consortium granted Williamsburg an extra feeder slot. The high poverty level of the students who attend the included or “target” schools upped the competitiveness of the grant, while the low enrollment levels in those schools kept the grant funding distribution manageable.

Of the three feeder systems in the district, performance data indicated Hemingway schools were the best in the district at the time. The schools that Williamsburg chose for inclusion:

• C.E. Murray High

• Kingstree Senior High

• Kingstree Middle

• Williamsburg County Magnet School

• Greeleyville Elementary

• Kenneth Gardner Elementary

• W.M. Anderson Primary

The success exhibited by the Hemingway schools played a role in Williamsburg County’s competitiveness within the CCEL grant. Widner said the U.S. Department of Education wanted applicants to prove not only that they had an innovative vision for improving student performance but also that the vision was achievable. Hemingway schools’ success proved the district is capable of reaching above-average performance levels, she said.

Hemingway High Principal Levi Keith said in December he had been under the impression that his school was also included in the application.

“I’m a little shocked about it, because I thought we were part of that Race to Top grant,” he said. “I don’t like it, no. But we can’t do nothing about it. I wouldn’t want to be the one to prevent (the district) from getting the grant.”

Jefferson-Barnes and Widner both said that while some of the district’s schools are not eligible for direct funding, the benefits of the grant will be felt system-wide.

The tangible results of the nearly $13 million in grant funding will be realized through technology purchases, such as tablet computers, for all students attending the schools included in the grant, as well as the hiring of new personnel in those schools. The district calls the technology purchasing portion of the grant a “One-to-One” program, meaning one device for every one student. Jefferson-Barnes said there are already plans in place involving other funding sources to implement the One-to-One in the schools not included in the grant.

In December, Hemingway High and Hemingway M.B. Lee Middle Schools received $300,000 grants each from the S.C. Department of Education for use in addressing the needs of at-risk students. Last year, D.P. Cooper received a grant, Jefferson-Barnes said, which was being put to use in purchasing tablet computers for students.

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