The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation today awarded the Aldine Independent School District this year's Broad Prize in Urban Education. It is the third time in eight years that a Texas school district has won the $1 million prize in scholarship money.
Selected by an eight-member, bipartisan jury of education, government, business, and civic leaders, Aldine is no stranger to the Broad Prize (pronounced brode): It had been among the finalists for the award three times prior to its win this year. The prize money funds college scholarships for the winning district's graduating seniors, something Aldine Superintendent Wanda Bamberg says her students need now more than ever, thanks to the recession.
When Bamberg began working for Aldine as a teacher nearly 30 years ago, the district served mostly white, relatively affluent students. Today, 80 percent of the students in the district, which is near Houston, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, 64 percent are Hispanic, and 31 percent are English-language learners. Just 4 percent of nearly 60,000 students are white.
In response to this shift in demographics, Aldine has changed its curriculum to stay on top of students' evolving needs, Bamberg says. Because an economically disadvantaged population often means a highly mobile population—one in which students and their families move into, out of, and around the district frequently—Aldine makes sure that every school in the district follows the same curriculum for each grade level. "If we were not teaching the same skills in the same order, we would have children missing out on huge skill sets," Bamberg says. "And we can't have that."
The Broad Foundation cited Aldine's strong districtwide policies and practices as one of the reasons it stood out from competitors. The foundation also praised Aldine for its strong overall performance compared with demographically similar Texas districts and for its success in closing the achievement gap among students from different economic backgrounds. Even though family income is a strong predictor of student performance nationwide, poverty among Aldine students is not statistically related to their achievement at any grade level or in any subject, according to Broad Foundation research.
It might seem like Aldine is ahead of the curve in knowing what works in urban education, but Bamberg insists there is still "so much work to do." She says that the district faces a considerable challenge meeting the needs of its high school students, many of whom moved to the district as teenagers after living elsewhere in their elementary and middle school years. To prevent these students from falling behind or dropping out, Bamberg says, Aldine teachers motivate students by focusing on the gains they have made, no matter how small.
Such encouragement comes in almost as many different forms as Aldine has different types of students. If a student fails his first semester of algebra, Aldine teachers work with him one-on-one to get him caught up instead of forcing him to repeat the entire semester. Another option Aldine offers students is open-entry/open-exit classes in the afternoons and online. These classes allow students to begin and complete work for a course at any time during the school year. Bamberg also says that Aldine gives students the opportunity to retake tests if they fail on the first try. "We're not trying to see how many kids we can catch [failing], we're trying to see how many kids we can catch up," Bamberg says. "We will provide tutoring, small-group instruction, or whatever else a student needs to succeed."
Janice Johnson, a recent graduate, is one of the many Aldine students the district caught before she followed through on plans to drop out. Raised by her grandmother, Johnson, now 18, and her six brothers and sisters grew up poor. She was jealous of classmates who had nicer clothes, more to eat, and mothers and fathers to come home to, she says. Johnson's mother lost custody of her when she was young; her father drowned in a hurricane.
While attending Eisenhower Senior High School, Johnson completed an autobiographical assignment in which she revealed her difficult past and her depression. Recognizing Johnson as a student in need of guidance, family and consumer sciences teacher Frances Carter wrote "See Me" on Johnson's paper before returning it. Those two simple words sparked a transformation. Johnson opened up about her feelings, recommitted herself to school, and with the help of a second teacher with ties to a publishing company, realized a lifelong dream of having her poetry published.