Atlanta is starting a program to recruit teachers to high-need urban schools. Bibb County is hiring graduation coaches for high schools and buying hand-held computers for students at low-performing schools.
Gwinnett County — the state's largest district with 150,000 students — is helping other school systems mimic the district's successful grow-your-own-principal program.
At least two more districts — DeKalb and Gwinnett — are getting coveted Teach for America slots, bringing in recent college graduates to low-income schools to teach for two years. The state also hopes to open slots in Clayton County.
It's all part of a $4 billion federal grant program from the U.S. Department of Education aimed at pushing states to adopt innovative programs that will improve student achievement and turn around struggling schools. Georgia was one of 12 states, plus Washington, D.C., that won the money last year.
The money will go to pilot a merit pay program for educators, expand a system that tracks students from pre-kindergarten through college, boost graduation rates and revamp the state's math and English standards.
"It means we can provide a lot more for our students," said Kathy Reese, head of Bibb County's grant program. "Because we are able to fund extra positions, there are people who have the time to really build relationships with students and let them see their future really depends on them graduating high school."
The state is developing a performance pay system in the 26 districts that signed on to the Race to the Top application with the intention of eventually expanding it statewide. Three committees are planning how the system will work, with the first recommendations expected in June and the system slated to launch this fall.
"If you focus on getting the very best teachers you can in the classroom and getting the very best principal in a school, it's going to make a tremendous difference with student performance," said Glenn Pethel, who heads Gwinnett County's grant program.
Gov. Nathan Deal has set aside $19 million of the grant money for school districts and charter schools that form partnerships with colleges, business or nonprofits to create innovative programs. The grants will go to teacher training initiatives and charter schools that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
So far, the state has received $32 million of its grant, but many programs paid for with the money are only getting started, said Teresa MacCartney, deputy superintendent for Georgia's Race to the Top implementation.
With the money, all high school sophomores in the 26 districts that signed on to the state's Race to the Top application will take the PSAT for free after having to pay out-of-pocket for the last two years. And educators at the lowest performing schools in a few districts will attend summer leadership academies to brush up on teaching skills.
The windfall comes at a time when the state's schools are suffering from massive budget cuts. But the federal money can't go to reduce class sizes or replenish schools' dwindling coffers because the state promised to spend it on other programs.
State officials say that the money was not meant to be a bandage for schools' budgets, but a way to generate new ideas to improve student learning, even amid the worst fiscal picture in decades.
"State and local budgets are being stretched throughout Georgia," said MacCartney. "This dedicated funding will allow Georgia to be at the forefront of innovative reform to further improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement."