Emerson Salmeron, an Atlanta student who emigrated from El Salvador when he was 8, is an Advanced Placement course fanatic.
A sophomore at Berkmar High School in Gwinnett County, Ga., Salmeron has enrolled in seven AP courses so far in his academic career, including English Language and Environmental Science. Salmeron, whose father did not finish grade school, has earned some of the highest exam scores in the state of Georgia, and he hopes to one day attend Stanford University—or maybe Princeton University, his fall-back choice. He credits his successes and goals, in part, to his teachers in Gwinnett County, just outside Atlanta.
[See how three high school classes got to college.]
"The teachers try to impulse you to show your extraordinary capacity and go beyond what you believe you can do," Salmeron says. "They try to make you a better person."
Now, Salmeron's school district is garnering national acclaim. On Tuesday, Gwinnett County Public Schools won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, the largest education award in the country, which is given annually to a school district deemed to have made the most significant gains in academic achievement among minority and poor students. The Gwinnett County district received $1 million; four other districts that were finalists were each awarded $250,000. The money provides scholarships to low-income, college-bound students who have shown dramatic academic improvement and who may not qualify for other awards.
Considered to be a kind of Oscars award for school districts, as Broad Foundation Communications Director Erica Lepping puts it, the prize is awarded by the Broad Foundation, a national venture philanthropy aimed at improving public education, which annually analyzes 100 school districts to pick a winner. The contest is also an attempt to "restore the public's confidence in our nation's public schools by highlighting successful districts," according to the Broad Foundation, which held an awards ceremony Tuesday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
[Read how schools populated with minorities are among the nation's best.]
"I think it really recognizes what's working and the good work that our teachers and our school leaders are doing," says Gwinnett County Public Schools superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks of his district's win. "Certainly all of us have our challenges and our issues, but there are a lot of good things that are going on in public education and I think the Broad Prize process allows for school districts to be recognized for the good work that they're doing. That's always positive."
The Gwinnett County Public Schools system is the largest in Georgia and the 14th largest in the United States with about 160,000 students in 123 schools. Half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch—signifying substantial financial need—and 16 percent are not native English speakers. Still, Gwinnett County students outperform other Georgian peers in reading and math at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and have some of the smallest achievement gaps between African-American, Hispanic, and white students in the state.
"We aren't denying the reality we inherit," says John Jameson, an Advanced Placement economics teacher at Berkmar High School, "but we focus on what we can actually do."
The ticket to achievement is to set a universally high bar for students, regardless of background or academic strength, and to supply enough aid from teachers and principals to ensure every student can meet the standards, Wilbanks says.
"We may have to provide some intervention; we may have to do things different for some," Wilbanks says. "But [students] can learn and will learn if given the support and held to high expectations."
To ensure student success, teachers are buoyed by strong internal support. All teachers follow the district's own, uniquely rigorous curriculum, called Academic Knowledge and Skills, which pushes beyond Georgia's standards for public education. Teachers also follow the district's Quality-Plus Teaching Strategies, a guide of "best practices" that Wilbanks says are often overlooked, like the importance of asking open-ended questions and requiring students to set personal goals for improvement. The district also has an internal Quality-Plus Leader Academy, a yearlong program that guides and promotes teachers and assistant principals to higher leadership roles in the academic community.
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.