Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District Wins Prestigious Broad Prize

The North Carolina district improved the most over the past three years among large, urban systems.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school district won the 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education today for showing the greatest academic gains in a large, urban school district. The district will receive $550,000 in college scholarships to give out to its graduating seniors. 

"Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a model for innovation in urban education," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. The district has "created a culture of using data to improve classroom instruction, and put a laser-like focus preparing students for college and careers," Duncan said. 

Established in 2002 by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on improving public school education, the prize is awarded to a public school district that has made the most academic gain over the past three school years among the country's 75 largest urban districts. With 178 schools and more than 135,000 students, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is the country's 18th-largest district. Broward County Public Schools, Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida and the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, were runners-up and will receive $150,000 each to divide among graduating seniors. Each of those districts has been a finalist in the last few years. 

Last year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg was a runner-up for the prize. Ann Clark, the district's chief academic officer, says the scholarships to be awarded are "life changing." 

[Learn more about the suburban Atlanta school district that won the Broad Prize in 2010.] 

"We want to reward students who have made progress over the course of their high school experience, to be able to recognize them for overcoming huge hurdles," Clark says. "We want to put them on a step and move them into college with less of a financial burden." 

Under Superintendent Peter Gorman, who ran the district between 2006 and June 2011, Charlotte public schools focused on closing a vast performance gap between white and minority students. Between 2007 and 2010, the gap between black and white students narrowed by 11 percentage points in high school reading. 

Gorman left the district in June to become an executive at News Corporation, where he is working with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein to develop educational technology. He earned rave reviews for his policies, which included an emphasis on data-driven reform and a "selective staffing" initiative that put the best teachers and administrators in 25 of the lowest-performing schools. 

His initiatives seemed to work. Under the leadership of Principal Tonya Kales, Ashley Park PreK-8 School—where 95 percent of students are African-American and 95 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch—went from being on the state's low-performing list (meaning its students were actually dropping grade levels each year) to becoming a high-growth school in just three years. 

[Learn about how some schools are closing the achievement gap by discussing race.] 

"We give them freedom and flexibility, with accountability," Clark says of the selective staffing initiative. Principals are given the freedom to revamp schools as they see fit, as long as their students perform. Kales did away with the idea that each teacher had a set class. 

Using internal assessments and teacher input, students are reassigned to different classes depending on their performance level. A student might be in a fifth grade reading class but a fourth grade math class, for example. Classes are rearranged dynamically throughout the year as students progress or need extra help. 

Students get the opportunity to work with many different teachers and find a fit that is best for them, Kales says. 

"You get kids who are able to articulate where they learn best and how they learn best," she says. "They don't have a concept of what grade they're in." Many of her students progress more than one grade level per year under the model. 

Clark says similar reforms have improved other district schools. "We realized we didn't necessarily have the strongest talent leading our underperforming schools," she says. "There was a need to jumpstart them."