Three years ago, Warren Township got a lucky break when it was one of just 16 school districts nationwide to win a big federal Race to the Top grant.

The district walked away with $28.5 million for its goal of more closely connecting what its schools teach to the individual needs of its students.

The district has used the money to try out a host of new ideas. It added state-of-the-art facilities to the career center at its high school, added a computerized system to keep students learning even if they are kicked out of school and poured money into training teachers.

But the district isn’t stopping there. Before the grant dries up in 2017, Warren hopes to use the money to add “blended learning,” a system that mixes teacher-led lessons with individual work on the computer, to all of its elementary, intermediate and middle schools.

“The grant has helped us build the wings of the plane before we take off rather than try to take that plane off and build the wings at the same time like a lot of districts around us are forced to do,” said Ryan Russell, assistant superintendent of educator effectiveness.

Warren Township has the fifth largest enrollment of the 11 Marion County school districts with 12,100 students, many of which face the same learning barriers that students in other high-poverty districts battle.

More than 70 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which for a family of four means less than $43,500 in annual income. In IPS, by comparison, about 75 percent of students qualify, and statewide the figure is about 49 percent.

Three of its nine elementary schools earned a D letter grade from the state for low test scores, including the once high-rated Sunny Heights Elementary School. Two of its three middle schools earned a D. Warren Township High School earned a C on its last state report card.

The grant was intended to spark innovation in school districts with these sorts of challenges and help them turn the corner to better student outcomes. Race to the Top school district winners were expected to find ways to personalize learning for students, especially using technology, that other districts around the country could learn from.

“The goal with Race to the Top was to really gain some momentum and spearhead this effort to personalize learning for students,” Russell said. “We’re not talking about a magnet school. We’re not talking about just one school out of our 18 sites. We’re talking about, as a district, committing to personalized learning.”

One example are changes at the Walker Career Center, which is attached to the high school.

A ‘real-world’ experience

Gabbi Mitchell stood shoulder to shoulder with professionals and did exactly the same work to produce videos during the VEX Robotics competition in November at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

She’s not getting paid, but you could argue her work is semi-professional. Mitchell has a job with a tiny student-run video production company called FrontRunner, which is housed at the career center.

Last week, FrontRunner was gearing up for its second time covering Gen Con, an annual gaming convention that takes over Downtown Indianapolis each August.

The school district spent $1.7 million from the Race to the Top grant to build a state-of-the-art studio equipped with a green screen, seven high definition cameras and a production trailer for students working in the field.

The idea for FrontRunner originated with Dennis Jarrett, who spent about a decade working in television at RTV6 before transitioning to teaching.

Students were doing live broadcasts and “real journalism” before the grant, Jarrett said. But he wanted to add a layer to the real-world experience they were getting. Now, organizations like Gen Con and VEX Robotics actually pay FrontRunner to produce videos during their events – money Jarrett hopes will keep the program going once the grant runs out.

“After this year, we have to be self-sufficient,” Jarrett said. “So what we’re able to do with the monies that we’re making is ensure that we can sustain this after the grant is done.”

For the students, Jarrett teaches video production classes during the school day. After school, they apply what they’ve learned in their work for FrontRunner.

“We’re outfitted on the level of any other production company or TV facility here in Indianapolis,” Jarrett said.

The Walker Career Center is home to more than 20 career-focused electives, from engineering to cosmetology. There is a fully functioning restaurant on site where students create, prepare and serve the food.

“It exposes these kids to something while they’re in high school and maybe it’s not for them,” Jarrett said. “Maybe they don’t like the fact that TV isn’t all glamour. Maybe they don’t like the fact that they have to spend four hours setting equipment up. So it exposes them to a career path while they’re still in a position to make a decision – they can change.”

Mitchell, 17, said she hopes to study broadcast journalism at Syracuse University – one of the best programs in the country – and would love to work at a network like CNN as an anchor or correspondent.

“I can do anything around here,” Mitchell said, sitting in the studio’s control room. “I can be on camera. I can use the camera. I can edit. I can do replay. But the thing I enjoy the most is capturing a story. I feel like everybody has a story and it just takes the right person to see it.”

An alternative to expulsion

By the end of the 2013-14 school year, Warren Township schools had expelled nearly 70 students and Superintendent Dena Cushenberry was frustrated.

The district needed an alternative to kicking kids out.

“My charge was, ‘How do we keep these students in school?’” Cushenberry said. “Maybe not in the school environment, per say. But how do we continue their education even though they’re not in the four walls of Warren Central High School or a middle school?”

Now they have an alternative thanks, again, to Race to the Top.

Today, when students are suspended and facing expulsion, the district’s Director of eLearning John Keller offers them a choice: stay in school by agreeing to take online courses or continue down the road to expulsion.

No longer are those students missing out on an education. For some of them, they’re even making it to graduation.

Since the program launched in October, 26 students have agreed to take online classes rather than be expelled. Two graduated on time this past spring. Seven earned credits.

But not doing the work is equivalent to agreeing to the expulsion.

“It doesn’t always work,” Cushenberry said. “You have some students that don’t want that. We try to make sure that everyone still has access to an education even when they think they don’t want it.”

Most of their school work can be completed at home, but the students take all of their tests at the district’s central office. Some students find the program suits them and they communicate with Keller often, he said. But he doesn’t hear from others after a mandatory orientation.

“The ball is very much in the student’s court,” Keller said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, this track goes over the cliff to expulsion and this track stays on the rails. But it’s pretty much all you now in the sense that this is your time to be an adult about your learning and it’s going to take some initiative. I’m not going to call you and get you out of bed.”

A new kind of teacher

"I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers. And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it."Ryan Russell

Making greater use of online learning has also meant more learning for teachers, some of whom are more adept at using new technologies for instruction than others.

In the past two years, the district has paid for more than 50,000 training hours for its teachers and administrators.

“I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers,” Russell said. “And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it.”

Most of the money from the grant has been spent, one way or another, on the more than 700 teachers in the district.

Russell said Warren wants students working at their own paces and seeing real-time results.

In many cases, that means teachers have to change the way they teach, which is the most challenging part of the process, he said.

“We as teachers were trained to kind of command and control a classroom – to be up front, a sage on the stage,” Russell said. “But personalization and blended (learning) really requires you to shift your role into more of a facilitator and a coach.”

Younger children, the district has learned, actually have a lot of understanding about how technological tools work and quickly learn how to use them for school work. So the district wants to connect that understanding directly to their lessons.

“We know that kids right now in kindergarten – all they know is technology,” Cushenberry said. “We had to figure out, ‘How do you make education relevant for the students of this generation?’”