Editor’s note: STEM News is new feature on Local Tech Wire through a collaborative effort with the NC STEM Community Collaborative, MCNC, and the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Center (SMT Center). To submit story ideas, please email LTW Editor Rick Smith rsmith@wral.com or Noah Garrett noah@thinkngc.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The is bracing for more than 1,000 applications on Wednesday when the deadline for the Investing in Innovation, or i3, federal grant program closes.

The i3 Fund, which is part of the $5 billion investment in school reform through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), will support local efforts to start or expand research-based innovative programs that help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for students in our schools.

ARRA also includes the competition, which will reward states that are leading the way in school reform. Delaware and Tennessee are the first and only states to receive Race to the Top funding to date. North Carolina was named a finalist in Round 1 earlier this year and plans to reapply later this month for Round 2.

Similar to Race to the Top, the i3 Fund seeks proposals to improve teacher and principal effectiveness, use data to measure school performance, develop academic standards, and turn around low-performing schools.

Grants will be paid out for i3 by the end of September. Each application will be judged by peer reviewers.

The applicants – which can be groups like school districts or partnerships between districts and nonprofit groups – must match 20 percent of the grant with private money. Despite criticism in early March, the Department of Education remained firm on the private match percentage, but did relax the timing so that prospective recipients do not need to secure the private funding until they have been notified that they are in line to win.

A dozen national foundations plan to commit up to $506 million in 2010 to help applicants leverage additional funding required in the 20-percent match.

Foundations join effort

The group of foundations include:

  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • ;
  • and the .

The national foundations have set up an Internet portal for applying for matching funds from all the foundations in one step, streamlining the task of seeking money from multiple sources. The website aims to simplify the private-funding application process and increase access and visibility for applicants.

While Foundation Registry i3 will enable applicants to register their proposal just once to reach a broad set of foundations for potential support, each foundation will maintain its own decision-making authority to determine which programs fit within their investment strategies.

Numerous state organizations have expressed collaborative interest with i3 applications at the local level in North Carolina.

Those include but not limited to: Community Foundation in Western N.C., Foundation for the Carolinas, Golden LEAF Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, All Kinds of Minds Institute, Oak Foundation, Weaver Foundation, Hayden-Harman Foundation, NC STEM Community Collaborative, Cherokee Preservation Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and the Mebane Charitable Foundation.

Most of more than $1.1 billion in government and foundation dollars will go to projects with a successful record, but the new Web portal will bring attention to some projects some might not have heard of otherwise.

“For too long, private investors have been the only ones to seek out and invest in big ideas still operating on a small scale,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “The Department of Education is now taking its cue from these foundations and investing $650 million in innovation, which the foundations will leverage through their $500 million commitment. This historic coordinated effort between the Department of Education and philanthropy will provide more than $1 billion for innovation in education in 2010.”

N.C. efforts

Local education agencies (including charter school LEAs) and nonprofit organizations working in collaboration with LEAs or a consortium of schools are eligible to compete for i3 funding. To be eligible for an award, an applicant must be located within one of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, or Puerto Rico.

A number of LEAs in North Carolina have indicated to the that they would be applying for i3: Alamance-Burlington, Alleghany, Ashe, Asheville City, Bertie, Bladen, Brunswick, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Craven County (maybe), Cumberland, Davie, Durham, Granville, Guilford, Jones, Lee, Macon, McDowell, Mooresville and New Hanover.

Several summary applications already have been received by DPI, according to the . Those proposals include applications from Orange County Schools, East Carolina University, Citizen Schools, The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, N.C. State University College of Education, and collaborative efforts from Roanoke River Valley Consortium and the Western Region Education Service Alliance (WRESA).

Three tiers

The Department of Education’s i3 Fund is broken into three tiers. Scale-up grants of up to $50 million each require strong evidence of effectiveness; validation grants of up to $30 million require moderate evidence of effectiveness; and development grants of up to $5 million are based on a reasonable hypothesis of effectiveness.

Applicants will get a competitive advantage or “bonus points” for focusing on early education, college access, rural schools, and students with disabilities and those who are limited-English proficient.

The foundation money and the federal program are both aimed at three aspects of education reform: innovation in the classroom, ideas for turning around low-performing schools, and research to study ideas that can be expanded across the nation.

Approximately $233.2 million in Innovation in the Classroom Funds will be used to scale practices and programs that recruit and train effective teachers and school leaders, improve the use of data for professional development and high quality assessments, complement the implementation of high standards, improve early learning outcomes, support college access and success, improve education in Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM), support the unique needs of English language learners and students with disabilities, and promote digital learning models.

Another $178.1 million in Innovative School Models Funds will go towards expanding effective practices in turning around low-performing schools – providing support for high-quality school choices including charters and alternative school designs – as well as for digital learning and supporting extended learning time.

Finally, $95.1 million in Sustainability of These Innovations Funds will help ensure that innovations have long-term impact and become a part of the broader education landscape. Funds will be used for research and evaluation of the effectiveness of the innovations and for growing the public support and capacity necessary for a more robust innovation sector. Funds in this category also will be used to develop platforms to share information across jurisdictions to continuously improve the field.

The grant application deadline is Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. eastern time. Late applications will not be accepted. You can find additional program information on a from the U.S. Department of Education.