Size is one of Rhode Island’s secret weapons, and it enables the strategic partnerships and relationships that are at the heart of getting things done. The Race to the Top story is no exception.
In fact, the stage was set for Rhode Island Foundation’s involvement in Race to the Top. Even before we helped to fund the first application, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and Foundation President Neil Steinberg had already led a successful joint effort between the Department of Education (RIDE) and the foundation to bring Teach For America to Rhode Island. The two shared an optimistic perspective on the future of Rhode Island’s schools and believed this was Rhode Island’s time to win.
Well, we didn’t win in the first round, but Deborah and the “troops” rallied around her- including Neil; our board and staff; legislative, business, and community leaders; educators; parents; and students-did not waste time being discouraged. Instead, they created a game plan for round two, which included a foundation-funded campaign to build support and dispel misperceptions about how Race to the Top dollars would be directed. At public meetings statewide, Deborah and Neil explained that Race to the Top funding would help RIDE execute its strategic plan. The meetings provided a forum for civil dialogue on sensitive, hot-button issues like teacher evaluation. Concurrently, a steering committee representing a variety of interested parties met on a regular basis to work out differences, build trust, and create a winning application.
Neil’s op-ed in the Providence Journal, “Let’s Win this Race to the Top,” reiterated the reasons we were so focused on improving public education. “A strong system of public education-one that effectively prepares students for higher education and the jobs of the future-is the foundation on which a robust economy is built…Only effective system-wide reform of Rhode Island’s public education will transform our aspirations into reality. Fortunately, there is reason for hope,” he wrote.
And there was! On August 24, 2010, Rhode Island was named a Race to the Top winner. The foundation ran a full-page congratulatory ad in the Providence Journal, listing all the parties who made the win possible and thanking them for their work “on behalf of Rhode Island’s students and educators who will benefit from $75 million in federal dollars to improve public education.”
Neil was named co-chair of the state’s Race to the Top steering committee.
One year later, public officials and community leaders joined us for a Race to the Top birthday party, complete with cake.
In early November, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Rhode Island and moderated a panel featuring Deborah, Neil, and other education leaders. Sec. Duncan applauded the progress Rhode Island had made toward its ambitious goals in public education.
The Foundation also supported our longtime partner and grantee Rhode Island KIDS COUNT as they worked with RIDE to secure a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant. What a thrill to learn in mid-December that Rhode Island was one of only six states to win both grants. The children who will benefit from this $50 million grant participated in the celebration. And just last week, we were gratified to see this good news: Rhode Island now ranks 20th in the country according to the 2012 Quality Counts national report.
Listing public education as one of the foundation’s top priorities has entailed significant investments of dollars, time, leadership, and other critical resources. But these investments have leveraged phenomenal support, and contributed to positive momentum and a sense that we may see the day when the smallest state has the best public schools in America. It’s a dream worth working toward.
Melanie Coon is senior vice president for communications and marketing at The Rhode Island Foundation, a member of the Council on Foundations.