The Hawaii Department of Education will distribute up to $250,000 to public schools that come up with creative new ways to address complex issues.

The Hawaii Innovation Fund Grants will be awarded to traditional and charter public schools that produce original programs to be piloted over an initial two-year period at the schools.

The $1 million in total funding comes from $650,000 in federal Title I funds and $350,000 in state general funds. The amount of grants will range from $10,000 to $250,000 to pay for such things as casual hires, supplies, equipment, in-state travel and administrative costs.

The department is also offering “micro-grants” of $500 to $5,000 apiece using a separate $20,000 allocation for proposals that positively impact student achievement.

Board of Education Building.

The Department of Education is looking to encourage creative thinking in its schools.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Announced to school leaders about a month ago, the deadline to apply for either grant is Jan. 8. One area teacher called the notice “a surprise, a pleasant one.”

“It’s really awesome to me that the DOE is willing to take a chance with real money on real innovation, which is risky, instead of going with something they’ve seen work in one place and roll it across the board,” said David Negaard, an English and STEM teacher at H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui.

That sentiment reflects what’s long been perceived as a challenge in Hawaii’s public schools: innovating within the confines of a top-down school bureaucracy.

The grants seem to represent a bit of a shift, said Negaard, a sixth-year teacher who will be submitting a proposal to convert an old auto shop room into a design innovation lab at Baldwin High, a “makerspace” bearing similar design details to the high-tech lab at the private Iolani School.

“I think our public school students deserve similar opportunities,” he said.

“It’s really awesome to me that the DOE is willing to take a chance with real money on real innovation.” — David Negaard, schoolteacher

This is the first time the DOE will award such grants to public schools. They will be administered through the Office of Strategy, Innovation and Performance.

Proposals will be evaluated based on their level of innovation and whether they fit the following criteria: to target the “root cause of a challenging and complex problem by utilizing breakthrough approaches to education”; “disrupt existing structures and systems”; “have the potential to permanently transform education; and “implement creative practices and new methods of operation.”

Priority will be given to proposals that align with Hawaii’s strategic plan of bolstering student learning, closing the achievement gap, increasing college enrollment and improving teacher retention, among other things.

The highest-scoring proposals will be visionary and entrepreneurial and ask the question, “Where must we be in 10 years?” according to the application. Using the issue of homelessness as an example, the DOE said salient proposals might include coming up with a “mobile classroom to serve transient homeless students,” an after-school program for homeless students or an incentive program to boost homeless students’ attendance.

Allowing schools to design their own curriculum to promote student engagement and learning has been touted by Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who took over the position in August.

Schools applying for the innovation grants are also encouraged to partner with community organizations, nonprofits and colleges if that fits the need outlined in their proposal.

Leigh Fitzgerald, executive director of the charter school Hawaii Technology Academy, said her school would apply for two micro-grants, which will allow her to consider “smaller innovative ‘hacks’ or projects that can be immediately implementable in the classroom or co-curricular programs.”

She said she appreciated the fact the department provided examples and guidance of what quality submissions might look like.

“In my last 10 years of working with the DOE, this is the first time I really recall seeing examples given that provided benchmarks of, this is what we’re looking for,” she said of the application guidelines.

The DOE will announce grant winners in February. The implementation period of a selected project will run through September 2019.

Proposals will be evaluated by a committee of education leaders.

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