LEWISTOWN - Amid all the budgetary doom and gloom confronting public education these days, there's actually a glimmer of good news for the Mifflin County School District.
Dawn Hayes, the district's director of federal programs, announced on Thursday that Mifflin County has been awarded a Keystone Opportunity Grant in the amount of $1.5 million to be used to improve reading and literacy skills in children from birth to grade 12.
"This is just great," Hayes said. "This is record-breaking for us."
According to Hayes, Mifflin County was one of 56 of the Commonwealth's 501 school districts to be successful in attaining the funding, which comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
"Especially during these times of budget cutting, it's nice when the state gives us money to do the right thing," Hayes observed.
Being able to secure such a large grant wasn't easy, however.
"It was a pretty rigorous application process," Hayes said. "There was a pre-application period and a regular application period. We had to assemble an entire team of folks that work with kids all the way from birth up to grade 12. We completed a community-wide literacy needs assessment to determine needs in language arts and reading with a heavy emphasis on reading."
Hayes said the state was looking at a number of criteria in reviewing the application.
"They wanted to know whether or not we have a vision- do we have the capacity to carry out change and can we transform literacy skills in kids from birth to grade 12?" she said. "They also wanted us to have strong partnerships with various community organizations, which we were able to show that we have."
Hayes said those community partners include school administration, school board members, parents, teachers, curriculum coordinators, guidance counselors, parent-child home program, Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11, Success by Six and the United Way, Mifflin County Head Start, and local pre-kindergarten providers.
"We have a strong team in place and that was something they were really looking at during the application process," Hayes pointed out.
Hayes said the grant money will be used to serve four specific areas: reading and language arts on the elementary level, the birth to age 5 community, the middle schools and the high school.
Hayes said the department of education is preparing a rigorous set of new initiatives in the area of reading and literacy and "this (grant) really helps tie them all together. It provides for professional development for teachers for implicit instruction, research practices and development of a system of assignment and analysis to improve instruction."
The money will also go toward development of a state-mandated literacy plan that will include the use of literacy coaches who will be in classrooms to assist teachers.
Even though the grant is for this year, Hayes said the potential for more is very real.
"They've told us that if we show growth in achievement, we will be awarded another $1.5 million next year as well," Hayes said. "There is the possibility the federal government may extend the grant for a total of five years, which would be fantastic, but we don't know if they'll do that or not."
Hayes said the grant money gives the district the power to bring about positive change in Mifflin County.
"It gives us the money to implement the Pennsylvania literacy plan," she said. "That plan looks at how teaching is important, how using effective strategies is important, the importance of high quality teaching, and setting a high culture of learning so every child has the opportunity to learn.
"Literacy is a critical foundation for our kids to be successful," Hayes continued. "It certainly helps to have Mr. Estep and the school board be so supportive in making instructional changes and having a vision. To have folks making this kind of commitment, we believe we can make big changes for the betterment of our kids. It's going to be a lot of hard work but it's also going to be a lot of fun."