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U.S. lauds state’s ‘Race to the Top’ turnaround

    Castle High School students Skye Generalao, left, Samuela Tatofi, Alison Lagaret and Trevor Price watch footage from Kermit the Hawaiian monk seal’s Crittercam. The students got to see the images before scientists did.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday lauded Hawaii’s public school system for progress made in the third year of its four-year $75 million Race to the Top grant, calling Hawaii a model for other states.

The praise marks a sharp turnaround from a year ago, when Hawaii’s grant was still partially flagged for the state’s slow progress in achieving goals in its aggressive reform plan.

Hawaii won the Race money in 2010 after pledging sweeping education reforms, including plans to turn around its lowest-performing schools, boost student achievement and improve teacher and principal effectiveness.

The U.S. Department of Education had placed Hawaii’s prize on "high-risk" status in December 2011, citing concerns about whether the state’s promised reforms could be met. Officials warned at the time that Hawaii’s "unsatisfactory performance" could jeopardize its funding. The warning label was partially lifted in February 2013 and completely removed last summer.

"When we originally gave (Hawaii) the Race to the Top grant, lots of folks really doubted our judgment there, thought there was no way they could be successful," Duncan told reporters Tuesday on an embargoed conference call.

Duncan continued, "They absolutely initially struggled. There were conversations whether we were going to have to start to pull money back or withhold money, and they’ve just shown amazing leadership and in a relatively short amount of time made huge progress both on system-level changes" and student achievement.

Year 3 progress reports for the 11 states and the District of Columbia that won Race grants totaling nearly $4 billion in 2010 were released Tuesday evening.

Hawaii’s progress report credits the state for taking "key steps toward ensuring that all of the state’s educators are equipped with the resources they need and students are prepared to be successful in college and careers."

"The third-year report is a testament to the remarkable efforts of our educators in meeting elevated expectations," Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said in a statement. "As we head into the final months of the grant, we continue our commitment to put into place systems and practices that will keep our students successful in college, careers and community long after the grant ends.

Race to the Top was an important step in the transformation of our public school system and we are staying the course."

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