After what they say was a long, hard struggle to improve student achievement, school leaders in the Long Beach Unified School District in California feel they can pause for a moment to enjoy a recent rush of success.
The 97,000-student district was named last week as the 2003 winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education.
“It’s wonderful to be recognized,” said Richard Van Der Lann, the district’s information officer, who noted that community and city support have been vital. “We’ve all worked our hearts out.”
The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation first awarded the prize last year in an attempt to increase confidence in public education. But the award program has recently drawn criticism because the first award went to the Houston Independent School District, which has been the focus of an intense controversy over its high school dropout data. (“Despite Disputed Data, Houston Backers Say District Merited Prize,” Sept. 24, 2003.)
Finalists are selected from more than 100 urban school districts nationwide, with 20 education leaders reviewing each district’s data. The national winner receives $500,000 in student scholarships.
This year’s finalists included the 62,800-student Boston Public Schools; the 50,000- student Garden Grove Unified School District in California; the 95,000-student Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky; and the 37,000-student Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia. Each finalist received $125,000 in student scholarships.
Among its other philanthropy, the Broad Foundation supports coverage of leadership issues in Education Week.
‘More With Less’
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the Long Beach school district has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the nation. Students in the district speak 46 different languages.
District officials said establishing a stable educational system for such a varied enrollment can be challenging. The current economic troubles in California haven’t made it any easier.
The district had to cut nearly $40 million from its $840 million budget over the past year alone, forcing it to impose hiring freezes, limit staff travel, and place all discretionary programs on hold.
Despite steady enrollment growth and major cuts in state funding, the district has managed to avoid issuing pink slips for teacher positions, it has kept its pupil-teacher ratios in grades K-3 at 20-to-1, and its scores on state tests have shown steady improvement.
“We tapped the brake pedal when we saw leaner times coming,” Mr. Van Der Lann said last week. “We’re doing more with less.”