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New round of US grants for education innovation

The federal government is trying to make it easier to apply for one of its grants for innovative ideas to improve education, but with budget cuts there’s a lot less money to give away this year.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education gave out $650 million to 49 school districts, charter organization, colleges, universities and other nonprofit organizations for entrepreneurial ideas with the potential of helping the nation’s schools. This year, there’s $150 million available for the second round of Investments in Innovation or i3 grants, the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday.

Nearly 1,700 groups applied for the 2010 grants, and Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, is hoping for another flood of applications this summer. The department particularly wants to encourage innovation in rural education; science, technology, engineering and math learning; supporting effective teachers and principals; implementing high academic standards and quality tests, and turning around persistently low-performing schools.

“There’s a tremendous pent-up demand in the field to share innovations that people feel have national implications,” he said.

Grants of up to $25 million are being awarded for scaling up education programs with a chosen track record; grants of up to $15 million for growing a program with emerging evidence of success; and grants of up to $3 million for developing promising ideas. In 2010, grants for the same categories were given in amounts up to $50 million, $30 million and $5 million.

The program could have been completely eliminated, but Congress apparently recognized the program’s success at attracting creative ideas that could potentially benefit schools across the country, Shelton said.

“The kind of support this program got from the field made it an obvious choice,” he said.

The department is offering pre-application workshops and has streamlined the process and the application form to encourage more applications. They are due in August and awards will be made before the end of the year. Finalists will be chosen by independent peer review panels.

Finalists will then have to get additional dollars from another source, such as the local or state government or foundation money, equal to 5-15 percent of the grant, depending on how much is rewarded before they will get a check from the federal government. In 2010, every finalist was able to get that matching money, thanks in part to a foundation-led online grant clearinghouse.

For the second round of grants, the government promises to pay special attention to grants that help rural children and schools. Some money went to rural-focused projects in 2010, but Shelton is hoping to increase the number of rural grants in 2011.

An example of a rural project that got an i3 grant last year was a consortium of 15 school districts in Appalachia working with the Niswonger Foundation of Greeneville, Tenn., to create a college-going culture by using technology to bring more college-prep curriculum to the districts, and helping some schools partner with community colleges to offer dual-credit classes.

The Search Institute in Minneapolis included four locations in Maine in its i3 project to help schools work on non-academic barriers to learning such as truancy and drug use.

Extra points will also be given to applications that focus on improving productivity or technology, help students with disabilities and limited English proficiency, focus on early learning or increase college access and success.

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