All students are encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses, like the ones Berkmar sophomore Salmeron is taking. Since AP exams are universal assessments that do not account for external variables such as poverty levels or English-speaking abilities, Jameson says hearing from his students who "go toe to toe with the best and the brightest on the planet" is one of the most rewarding aspects of working in the Gwinnett school district.
"It's the tenor of their voice[s] when they talk about what they want to do next," Jameson says. "They grow so much in terms of their self confidence and what they see as possibilities for their lives. They just get hungry for more and more success."
Salmeron, for one, has his sights set high. Beyond dreams of a top-flight college education, he is torn between becoming an electrical engineer or an entrepreneur. But he knows he wants to "make the world a better place" and achieve more academic success than his parents, he says.
As a stand-out sophomore, Salmeron won't be eligible for a scholarship this year. The Broad Foundation prize money goes to financially needy seniors who have shown great academic improvement, much like the district itself, Lepping, of the Broad Foundation, says. Students who go to traditional colleges will receive $20,000 over four years; those who attend two-year institutions will be awarded $5,000 over two years.
"We felt there's no better way to actually provide the award than to continue the education of the kids at issue," Lepping adds. "Even though a lot of these districts have made major gains, oftentimes [students] still don't have enough money to go to college."
At last year's winning district, Aldine Independent School District in Texas, 55 students were awarded scholarships, "quite a few" of whom could not have attended college without the financial help, according to superintendent Wanda Bamberg.
This year's other finalists—Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, and Socorro Independent School District and Ysleta Independent School District in Texas—are far from losers. Each district will receive $250,000 for college scholarships.
[Read more about the Broad Prize finalists.]
Each of the five districts implement strategies that could be replicated in struggling districts across the country, says Shelley Billig, who conducted school research for the contest. The Broad Foundation, founded by Eli and Edythe Broad, will now assemble and disperse a rundown of the finalists' successful plans that other districts would do well to consider, Billig says.
"There is an awful lot of support in these districts for young people to do well in their lives," Billig says. "It's not just those who have gotten a good start in life because their families were able to provide for them, but any child who enters the district. It's a different kind of philosophy than what we always see—it's saying that the world is changing...and we have to prepare our students for the future."
[See our coverage of the country's Best High Schools.]
Updated on 10/20/10.