School & District Management

Two Districts Share Urban Education Prize

By Denisa R. Superville — September 30, 2014 4 min read
Gwinnett County public school officials Tricia Kennedy, Jody Reeves, and Nikki Mouton, from left, embrace in Suwanee, Ga., upon learning that their district will share the Broad Prize with Orange County, Fla.
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The two districts that shared the $1 million Broad Prize last week—Gwinnett County, Ga., and Orange County, Fla.—were the only two nominated for the competition’s final round, underscoring the challenges in improving urban school systems and sustaining long-term growth.

At the New York City ceremony where the winners were announced, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Eli Broad, the founder, with his wife, of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the award’s sponsor; and others were candid about the difficulty of driving educational progress in urban schools.

Officials with the foundation and the Broad Prize for Urban Education had previously expressed their disappointment at a general lack of improvement in urban schools. (The foundation also supports coverage of systems leadership and personalized learning in Education Week.)

Mr. Duncan said that while educators should be buoyed by positive steps in the field, they should also redouble efforts to reach all students. “There are still too many kids out there with heart, with potential, with great intellect, who simply aren’t having the chance to be successful,” the secretary said.

Mr. Broad sounded a similar note, as he highlighted lessons the foundation has learned.

“We’ve learned that efforts to improve public schools take time,” he said. “We can’t afford to let generations of students fall through the cracks while politics and personalities distract [districts] from the core work that happens in the classroom, and we have learned, through our work on the Broad Prize, that there are pockets of success.”

Dorina Sackman, front right, the Florida Teacher of the Year for 2014, joins her Orange County public school colleagues in Orlando last week in cheering their district’s selection for the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

Those bright spots include the Gwinnett and Orange county schools, Mr. Broad said. Their selection marks the first time two districts are sharing the prize in its 12-year history.

The superintendents from both districts stressed that while pleased with the recognition, they know that more efforts are needed to close achievement gaps in their districts.

“It’s not like we think we have arrived,” said Barbara M. Jenkins, Orange County’s superintendent and a 2006 graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, the foundation’s training program for urban superintendents. “We know we still have miles to go; but we have had some concerted efforts that, I think, have helped us along the way, to be headed in a very positive trajectory.”

Different Profiles

Gwinnett County, a 169,000-student district in suburban Atlanta, where J. Alvin Wilbanks has been the superintendent for 18 years, won the prize in 2010 and was a 2009 finalist. Orange County, a 188,000-student district that includes Orlando and its suburbs, is a first-time finalist and winner.

Though similar in size and demographics, the two provide different pictures of student achievement. Orange County made progress in narrowing the gap between its poor students and higher-income students across Florida in elementary, middle, and high school reading and math, and in elementary and middle school science, the foundation said. Gwinnett was already a high performer among the 75 prize-eligible districts.

In 2013, 88 percent of Gwinnett County’s high school seniors took the SAT, the highest rate among the qualifying districts. That same year, 90 percent of the district’s African-American seniors and 70 percent of its Latino seniors took the SAT. That compares with an average participation rate of 43 percent for black seniors and 40 percent of Latino seniors across all eligible districts.

Gwinnett County—where 55 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals, a measure of poverty—ranked among the top 20 percent statewide for the percentage of low-income students hitting top levels on state exams in reading, math, and science.

The academic gains have been more recent in Orange County. Between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the highest level on Florida’s middle school reading test rose 6 percentage points to 22 percent in the district, compared with a 1-percentage-point gain, to 20 percent, for their low-income middle school peers in the rest of the state. From 2010 to 2013, participation rates and average scores on Advanced Placement tests rose districtwide, especially for Hispanic students.

Ms. Jenkins, who became superintendent in 2012 after serving as deputy superintendent and chief of staff, credits strong leadership, dating back to her predecessor, Ronald Blocker; a focus on using data to drive attention and resources to the weakest academic or social areas; and support from the community.

The prize has drawn criticism for selecting districts that, despite improvements, have weak achievement overall and for naming winners from a narrow band of districts. Among the critics is Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting firm in Washington. He has said that the prize should be abolished for often going to districts with middling performance records.

Mr. Smarick said his aim was to challenge the foundation and others to rethink the prize and the idea that urban schools would improve in their current form. That the foundation advanced two finalists this year, split the prize between them, and expressed disappointment in the lack of progress suggests that Broad officials are already doing some soul-searching, Mr. Smarick said.

“It just looks to me that they are doing something that very few people in the public eye do—which is take a step back and reconsider previous work in a fundamental way,” he said.

Assistant Editor Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as Two Urban Districts Share 2014 Broad Prize

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