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Tess Vigeland: Our next story is about a competition called "The Race to the Top." It's not a reality show. Instead, states are competing for a piece of a $4.3 billion federal education grant. Applications are due tomorrow. Winning depends on statewide programs to boost student performance and on improvements at individual schools. Marketplace's Jennifer Collins visited one school in Pasadena, Calif., as it races to the top.
CLASS 1: She just reached over in front of me. All right!
Steve Crosby has 38 kids in his 4th period algebra class at Eliot Middle School.
STEVE Crosby: Next one talking is going to come to the board and do one of these problems.
Eighth grader Alondra draws a graph on the board. Under it, she writes three letters...
Class 2: That's graffiti and gang graffiti. PDK. Huh? IDK!! I don't know. I don't know? Oh. OK.
This is just your average class at Eliot -- an underfunded middle school in Pasadena. Most of the students are from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Two thirds of the kids score below grade level in reading and math. Eliot is one of thousands of schools furiously making changes in order to improve student performance, all in hopes of getting grant funds from Race to the Top.
Alice Petrossian is in charge of academics in the Pasadena district.
ALICE Petrossian: I know principals have very honestly said to me, "Alice, you are putting some very difficult requirements on all of us in a very short time."
To meet those requirements and boost students' test scores, Eliot has given teachers extra coaching, more prep time and fewer classes to teach. The district invested in a computer system to track student progress. And students at Eliot are doing much better in English and math. But all that reform cost more than a half-a-million dollars, and it may not be enough.
Remember, for Eliot to get the grant money California has to win the grant.
KATI HAYCOCK: I personally, although I'm a native Californian, I would be quite surprised if California won one of these grants.
Kati Haycock is president of the policy group Education Trust. She says California's overall test scores may not have come far enough to qualify for the federal money. Even if California is among the winners, state school superintendent Jack O'Connell says the maximum his state could win would barely make up for billions in budget cuts.
JACK O'Connell: So this money will not be used to help restore many of the cuts that we've seen. We're not going to be able to restore counselors, nurses, librarians. But it will help us identify, by using data, effective programs that are making a difference.
And Alice Petrossian says Pasadena has already seen the benefits of Race to the Top in changes it's made just to qualify for the federal grants.
Petrossian: It's not the money. It's the belief in reform that allows us. And, yes, you're not going to laugh at half-a-million. If half-a-million's available, you sure want it because that may prevent the absolute annihilation of professional development, which is the key to improving.
Professional development is code for teacher training. And it may help Steve Crosby's students get better test scores. But they'll still have to compete for his attention in a class of 38 kids.
Thirteen-year-old Valerie Penate feels that strain.
VALERIE PENATE: The teacher can't just come to one person and say, "Do you need help?" because he has so many other students who need help.
Every year, the school piles more desks into Crosby's room until he finally says...
CROSBY: That's enough. Unless you want to give me some, you know, psychiatric days off.
California and Eliot Middle School find out if they've won a Race to the Top grant in April. In the meantime, Crosby's mental health may hang in the balance.
CROSBY: Wait! Don't move! So your homework tonight is what?
I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.