Five Minority School Districts In Running for Broad Prize

The low-income districts are finalists for the $2 million Broad Prize for making achievement gains.

In 2008, 51 high school seniors in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest towns in America, were surprised with the news that they had won $1 million in Broad Prize scholarships.

Five school districts—all in predominantly Southern states—were announced today by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation as being finalists for the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education, an annual $2 million award that honors low-income school districts of at least 100,000 students that are making the greatest progress toward raising student achievement.

The five finalists are Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina; Gwinnett County Public Schools outside Atlanta (which was a finalist last year); Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland; Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas (also a finalist last year); and Ysleta Independent School District, also in El Paso.

Since 2002, when the award was first established by the Broad Foundation, whose education work is focused on improving K-12 urban public education, three winners have been districts in Texas.

The winner of the prize, which will be announced on October 19 in New York, will receive $1 million in college scholarships for high school seniors who will graduate in 2011. The four finalist districts will each receive $250,000 in college scholarships.

"Basically, we've already won the prize—the $250,000," says Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, just outside of Washington. Currently, about 86 percent of the district's seniors graduate and go on to college, but Weast says the scholarships will give hope to price-weary students amid rising higher education costs.

Weast says enrollment has surged by 10,000 to 15,000 students since 2002. The uptick has rocked the district hard: Administrators began setting ambitious academic goals, such as having 80 percent of its seniors college-ready by 2014, just as the district’s demographic makeup began to radically change.
 Eight years ago, about 50 percent of students were white; now just 38 percent are. The percentage of English language learners in the 142,000-student district has also increased by 100 percent in the same time period. "At the same time, we've raised test scores every year," says Weast.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina, Superintendent Peter Gorman says the school system owes much of its success to a reform program known as "strategic staffing." Under the model, the district targets teachers who have a track record of increasing student achievement, and they are transferred, along with a principal, into 20 of the district's most challenged schools. "We believe in putting our most effective teachers where we need them most, and that all kids deserve access to them," he says.

Public schools in other challenging districts such as Chicago or New York sometimes undergo restaffing or complete closures, but Gorman says Charlotte-Mecklenburg is the only district he knows of that transfers its teachers and principals among schools in such a way.

The program is delivering results. North Carolina uses a growth model to measure the academic progress of its students, and four years ago, only about 54 percent of schools in the 137,000-student district averaged a year's growth for students in a year's time. Last year, almost 90 percent of schools averaged a year's growth.

In the five finalist districts, a higher percentage of black, Hispanic, and low-income students performed at the highest achievement level on state assessments in reading and math than did their statewide counterparts in 2009, according to the Broad Foundation. The districts also made progress in reducing the difference in achievement, or closing the achievement gap, among minority and low-income students and their white, more affluent peers. African-American students in Montgomery County, for instance, outscore all students nationwide on A.P. test scores by an average of about 10 percent, says Montgomery's Weast.

"These prizes show that you can raise the bar and close the gap," says Weast. "It doesn't have to be either/or."

Corrected on : Clarified on 4/7/10: An earlier version of this story contained enrollment figures that were unattributed; the uptick mentioned for the Montgomery County, Md., schools came from Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools.