UNION CITY -- The New Haven Unified School District on Tuesday won a $29.3 million federal grant, overcoming long odds while besting more than 350 other districts to be named one of 16 nationwide winners in the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top-District competition.
The district, one of just three state winners, finished second out of 372 applicants and 61 finalists competing for a pool of $400 million.
"This is a tremendous validation of the work that teachers and staff have doing; they've been coming together and working very hard the past few years, amid times unforeseen in the state's history," said Kari McVeigh, New Haven's superintendent of schools. "This grant will enable us to ... fulfill our mission to help every child reach his or her potential."
New Haven will use the funds over the next 4¿1/2 years to further student studies in literacy and mathematics by providing in-classroom academic coaches, expanding summer instruction to teachers and creating smaller classes for high school English learners, district spokesman Rick LaPlante said.
More library books, an expansion of online course for high school students and the purchase of a minicomputer tablets for every student in grades 6-12, and for every two K-5 students, are also part of the district's plan.
The grant money will greatly aid the cash-strapped district, where state budget cuts forced the school board to slash New Haven's budget from $114 million in 2008-09 to $91 million in 2012-13, LaPlante said. This year, budget cuts forced the school board to reduce funding for high school and middle school librarians, reducing library hours to one period per day. Private donations later allowed Logan High and Alvarado Middle schools to restore hours.
"It won't help us overcome all of the financial challenges that we're facing after five years of state budget cuts," McVeigh said. "But it certainly will help us continue the good work we've started here."
New Haven Unified serves 13,000 students in Union City and south Hayward. The district includes James Logan High School, the largest high school in Northern California, along with seven elementary schools, two middle schools, a continuation high school and an adult school.
New Haven Unified finished near the top because of "its innovative plans to personalize learning and strengthen teacher effectiveness," said Daren Briscoe, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman. Briscoe added: "We look forward to working with the district to support them as they implement reforms that will have an impact on the classroom level and ultimately prepare for every student for lifelong success."
Race to the Top grants, initiated by the Obama administration in 2009, previously had only been available at the state level. Last year, the state lost out on a grant offering a pool of $200 million because it objected to a number of federal requirements, including the criteria for teacher evaluation, said Pam Slater, spokeswoman for Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction.
"There is a whole host of federal requirements that had extensive strings attached, and the state was unwilling to accept those strings and obligate its 10,000 schools and their districts in exchange for what would have been a relatively small grant," Slater said.
Tuesday's winners were competing in the first-ever Race to the Top competition that allowed districts to apply individually. Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified didn'tapply for one of the grants because their teachers unions didn't endorse it. The Oakland union has objected to many of the reforms promoted by the U.S. Department of Education, including measuring the effectiveness of teachers, in part, through students' standardized test scores.
"We were basically told that an application that didn't meet that requirement had no chance," said Troy Flint, a district spokesman.
Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University, said that New Haven Unified's feat was particularly impressive given "that they were able to secure buy-in from the teachers to participate in some of the more controversial components of this."
The U.S. Department of Education's independent panel of peer reviewers placed New Haven second only to Carson City School District in Nevada, which garnered a $10 million grant. California had just two other winners: Lindsay Unified School District, south of Visalia; and Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, north of Stockton. Both districts will receive $10 million. The largest grant -- a sum of $40 million -- was awarded to Green River Regional Educational Cooperative in Kentucky.
Staff writers Sharon Noguchi, Katy Murphy and Josh Richman contributed to this report. Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.