Note: State activity around digital learning continues to move at a rapid pace. One of the more exciting ideas is Ohio’s Straight A Innovation Fund. We’ve asked a voice on the ground in Ohio to dig into the applications and unpack what this might mean for Digital Learning in Ohio. Michael Harlow specializes in legislative and community relations to advance innovation in education.  Based in Cincinnati, he tweets prolifically and publishes a daily Harlow Report keeping up with many of the latest trends in education. He’s also one of the newest elected members of the School Board for the Northwest Local School District. If you would like to submit a guest blog, please email [email protected].

The snow was coming down fast in Columbus, Ohio, last Friday, falling harder than Ohio State football’s national title hopes would the next evening.  Although the weather outside was frightful, 24 school districts and partnerships across the Buckeye State received delightful news: their Straight A Fund grant applications were approved for funding (pending approval by the Ohio Controlling Board on December 16th).

There was intense competition for these grants.  Over 1,000 letters of interest yielded 570 grant applications, and 369 passed muster as “fiscally sustainable” and advanced to the round of programmatic scoring.  Fewer than 5% of completed applications were approved. Additionally, legislators earmarked $11.4 million for projects (here and here), leaving just over $88 million on the table.

Digital Learning did very well.  Of the 24 winning applications, digital learning was prominently featured in at least 15.  Both Ohio policymakers and practitioners on the ground understand that digital learning is the key to moving Ohio forward.

Winning applications focused on digital learning include the following:

  • A networked 6th-12th grade blended learning and dual enrollment system across Appalachian Ohio, bringing greater access to digital learning resources to 48,000 students across 27 school districts;
  • A digital content collection for 9th-12th grade PARCC end-of-course exam courses replacing traditional textbooks in order to provide a catalyst for creating classroom environments that model the best practices in 21st century teaching and learning while increasing student achievement and reducing textbook expenditures.
  • A teaching network to further develop effective elementary education in the STEM fields. The grant will support replication and refinement of a promising case method teaching approach in a Cincinnati elementary school that integrates digital technology and improved student learning in financial literacy and business development.
  • Early College 2.0 (EC2) for middle school students will amplify student achievement and realize cost saving through initiatives including an infusion of technology, opening opportunities for blended learning and digital literacy;
  • Providing professional development for teachers on flipped/blended strategies through direct professional development instruction and through professional learning communities; and hold a Business Symposium to bridge the gap between local businesses and schools by providing a forum and website to establish internships and shadowing experiences in the community.
  • Using digital learning and blended learning technologies to deliver energy education to students in a part of Ohio that is experiencing an explosion (so to speak) of natural gas production activity. Currently, the area is importing workers and community leaders see the need for a massive increase in education of the local workforce.
  • Of particular note, Reynoldsburg will receive $14.4 million for the Pathways to Prosperity Network and the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative Personalized Learning Network received the largest grant – just under $15 million (they are also a finalist in RttT-D round II).

Everyone following the process knew it would be a grueling competition.  The successful grants would promise to deliver extraordinary results, in line with the fund’s goals, which are: to meet the learning needs of its students, reduce the cost of running a school or school district, drive more dollars to the classroom, or some combination thereof.  Grant scorers would scrutinize both the fiscal sustainability of the projects after the grant period and another panel would score the application on its programmatic merits.  Going forward, implementation will be the difference between success and failure.

Overall, it appears state decision makers chose wisely as these grants offer new practices increasing student achievement and saving school districts money.  Implementation is always a factor in public policy success, but the school districts seem to have chosen wisely when contracting with well-respected non-profits such as Battelle For Kids, university partnerships and private-sector corporations.  The ability to share what’s happening and how to replicate it will be an important part of the success of the Straight A Fund.

As I said last month during the first round of the process, “After earning a D grade on the 2012 Digital Learning Report Card, Ohio is stepping its digital game up.  As the groundwork was laid with the creation of the Ohio Digital Learning Task Force  and following up with promoting Digital Learning Day activities, the pieces are coming together and it’s clear Ohio has a bright future in digital education.

Proposed in Gov. Kasich’s original budget document nearly one year ago, the Straight A Fund was one of the few major initiatives to survive the legislative process largely intact.  Taken with the large number of applications submitted from all corners of the state, it is a sign that all of Ohio is ready, willing and able to make the great leap forward in digital learning.

In fact, other Buckeye applications, much like their football brethren, already cannot “wait till next year.”  $150 million is up for grabs in FY 2015 and the application period will begin soon.