Strong and steady won the race for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, winner of the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes large, urban school districts making gains in student achievement. The district, a five-time finalist for the coveted award, will receive $550,000 in college scholarships to dole out to high school students graduating in 2013.
The fourth largest school district in the country, Miami-Dade serves nearly 350,000 students—with more than 100,000 students attending one of the district's 107 high schools. Ninety percent of students in the district are either black or Hispanic, and 74 percent are low income, according to the district's website.
Graduation rates among black and Hispanic students at Miami-Dade rose 14 percentage points between 2006 and 2009—the largest graduation rate increase of any urban district, according to data collected by MPR Associates, Inc., an educational research firm. College readiness among minority students also improved, with more students taking college entrance exams and earning college credit through Advanced Placement courses.
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This consistent growth in student achievement is what set Miami-Dade apart from the 74 other districts eligible for the country's largest education award, Eli Broad, founder of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which awards the $1 million prize, said in a statement today.
"What is encouraging about Miami-Dade is its sustainable improvement over time," Broad said. "Their gains are a testament to the hard-working teachers, administrators and parents who have embraced innovative new methods to modernize schools and ensure that students of all backgrounds get the support they need."
Those methods include a targeted push toward digital education, blending online and in-class learning, as well as leveraging student data to assess the performance of both students and teachers.
Regular "data chats" at the district, county, school, and even classroom levels allow educators, students, and parents to delve into the strengths and challenges of their schools using real-time performance data from tests, quizzes, and homework assignments.
Reframing student data as a tool for development, rather than punishment, helped the district—which ties student achievement to teacher pay and retention—get teachers to buy into the data-driven approach, says Alberto Carvalho, superintendent at Miami-Dade since 2008.
"Our idea is that data and accountability can actually be a friend, not an enemy," Carvalho says. "Its ability to inform a community of learners ... is a powerful tool to the extent that it is used with dignity, with honesty, and not with second intentions."
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The district also reached out to the community to help push students to think past graduation day. Miami-Dade partnered with local businesses and colleges to bring job training and college-level courses to students.
District officials also encouraged parents to get engaged in budget and contract discussions, and formed academies to teach parents how to navigate the school system—from after-school opportunities to college applications.
"Parents need to be an integral participatory element in education reform; otherwise, the sustainability of reform may very well be compromised," he says. "Because if parents and students—the true clients of public education—are not at the table ... then the reform rests in the hands of the superintendent. And if the superintendent changes, there goes the reform."
But reforming Miami-Dade schools in the midst of a recession that crippled many school districts did not come without difficult decisions and "harsh conversations," he adds.
Among those tough decisions: replacing 64 percent of the district's principals, reducing administrative spending by 58 percent, eliminating travel, and implementing a hiring freeze.
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The district also petitioned city officials to invest in their community's education. In Miami Beach, for example, the city is footing the bill for professional development as the schools implement an International Baccalaureate curriculum, Carvahlo says.
"By embracing the harshness of the economic conditions we were able to not only do more with less, but in fact do better with less," he says. "We went from extreme need to efficiencies, from efficiencies to innovation, from innovation to transformation."
Miami-Dade was chosen from four finalists by a selection jury made up of leaders from the business, government, and public service communities, including former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mortimer Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report. The other finalists—Corona-Norco Unified School District in California, the Palm Beach County School District in Florida, and the Houston Independent School District—will each receive $150,000 in college scholarships.
Winning this year's Broad Prize proves "the code has been cracked in Miami," Carvahlo says.
"The priceless dimension of this prize is the bragging rights before a caring nation that is really looking for … a transportable, scalable, national model that could be replicated across America at a time when everyone is struggling for solutions."
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