Seven school districts in King County, which banded together three years ago to raise the number of students who graduate from college, have won a four-year, $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help them achieve that goal.

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Seven school districts in King County have won a four-year, $40 million grant that will help them carry out a preschool-to- college plan that includes everything from free college-admissions tests for all students to a summer reading program for the area’s neediest children.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday that the seven districts’ joint application was one of 16 winners in the first Race to the Top competition, which was for school districts rather than states. They competed with 371 applicants from across the nation, some of which were groups of charter schools.

The King County group, which banded together three years ago to raise the number of students who finish college or earn a career credential, includes Seattle Public Schools, as well as most of the districts in South King County: Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton and Tukwila.

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Together, the districts have 261 schools they say hold 70 percent of the county’s low-income children.

Some of the $40 million will touch every student in the seven districts, but most will go to programs that serve students from the poorest neighborhoods and families. The main areas of focus will be early learning; improving instruction in math, science, engineering and technology; and helping students prepare for and apply to college.

With the grant dollars, the districts will develop ways to share data more easily so they can better help students who move from school to school, provide an online math program for elementary and middle students in low-income neighborhoods that they can use at home and at school, train middle- and high-school counselors to better help students apply to college, and hire assistants to help those counselors. And that’s just a sampling.

Critics of the Race to the Top program argue it forces states and districts to adopt policies and programs that have yet to show their worth, and that may hurt more than help public schools. But Mary Jean Ryan, who got the King County consortium started, said that’s not the case for these districts.

“This wasn’t about us chasing money randomly,” she said. “This is what people say they actually want to do — and now we get to do it.”

Superintendents from six of the seven districts showed up at a midafternoon news conference smiling broadly. They took one serious group photo, then mugged for the camera like high-school students who had just won a major football game.

No one’s smile was bigger than Ryan’s. The state Board of Education member and former policy director under Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels started what’s now known as the Road Map Project, with help from the Gates Foundation, the Seattle Foundation and others.

Ryan said she screamed for quite a while after she got the call about the win — and kept screaming periodically throughout the morning as the news sunk in.

“This is one of the most exciting moments of my life,” she said at the news conference. “And I’ve had a pretty exciting life.”

The win is a boost for those who lamented the state’s poor showing in the earlier rounds of Race to the Top, one of President Obama’s top education initiatives. Washington’s application, submitted in 2010 when the contest was open only to states as a whole, ranked near the bottom. At the time, Washington had not adopted some of the policies the Obama administration is pushing, including using student test scores in evaluating teachers.

Washington later won a $60 million grant to improve private preschool programs, another Race to the Top contest. But this is the first Race to the Top grant for Washington school districts.

The other winners received anywhere from $5 million to $40 million.

The $40 million will cover most everything the districts want to do, Ryan said. They don’t need matching grants or to redirect other funds.

Ryan and the superintendents called their victory an honor, given that the winners were selected by outside reviewers who scoured the applications. The application for the King County districts, for example, was 320 pages, not counting the appendices and 175 letters of support from mayors, housing authorities, individuals and community groups.

The districts started putting together their application in August, when the rules for the competition were announced. Hundreds of people helped shape the application, which was signed by each of the district’s school-board presidents, union leaders and superintendents.

It’s not yet clear how all the money will be spent. The proposal includes several funds that districts will have to apply to tap into. The money will be divvied up among the programs in the proposal, not by district.

Lee Vargas, superintendent of the Kent School District, said he thought the application process for the first time brought together superintendents from all seven districts and all seven teachers union presidents.

Phyllis Silling, president of the Renton Education Association, said she was happy with how much input teachers had, but also noted the real work is to come. The announcement, she said, “is the end of the beginning.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or On Twitter: @LShawST