Equity & Diversity

Two School Districts Share Urban Education Prize

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 22, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 9 min read
Gwinnett County Public Schools officials Tricia Kennedy, from left, Jody Reeves, and Nikki Mouton, embrace upon hearing the announcement their school district will share the Broad Prize during a watch party on Monday in Suwanee, Ga. Officials announced Monday the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education will be shared by the school districts in Gwinnett County, Ga., and Orange County, Fla.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story used an outdated number to describe the minimum number of students a district must enroll to be eligible for the Broad Prize. The correct number is 42,500. The Broad Foundation incorrectly reported that former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley had served on the selection jury for this year’s prize. He did not.

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The school districts in Gwinnett County, Ga., and Orange County, Fla., have won the $1 million Broad Prize, the first time in the contest’s dozen years that more than one district was chosen for the annual award recognizing improvements in urban education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, along with officials from the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, announced the co-winners Monday at an event in New York City. (The Broad foundation also supports coverage of systems leadership and personalized learning in Education Week.)

The districts—both are demographically diverse and enroll more than 160,000 students each—were the only finalists for this year’s award. The districts will split the prize money, with each receiving $500,000 to be used for college scholarships for seniors graduating in 2015.

Mr. Duncan joked that he felt a little bit like Santa Claus when he pulled out the envelope naming two districts—not the customary single district—as the prize winners.

Superintendents from both districts stressed that while they were pleased with the honor recognizing the inroads the districts made in the tough urban education environment, significant work remained to be done. They both expressed gratitude to the Broad Foundation for supporting urban education.

“It means a tremendous amount [to us],” Gwinnett County Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said in an interview Monday. “I think our teachers understand they are doing good work. This is recognition of that good work. Our community is proud of it; our Chamber of Commerce, obviously, is proud of it, and should be. We are going to celebrate for a day or two” and get back to work.

Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins visibly exhaled when she walked up to the podium, after hugging Mr. Wilbanks in congratulations on the shared honor.

“I think it’s an affirmation for the work that we have been doing,” she said in an interview later. “It’s certainly an affirmation for the incredible teachers in our classrooms; and for the principals that do the work on the frontline, as well as the administrative team that backs them up and helps support what happens in the classroom; and the school board, which is singularly focused and very supportive of the work that we do.”

Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta, where Mr. Wilbanks has been the superintendent for 18 years, also won the prize in 2010 and was a finalist in 2009. Orange County, a district of 188,000 students that includes the city of Orlando and its suburbs, is led by Ms. Jenkins, who is a 2006 graduate of the Broad Academy, the foundation’s training program for urban superintendents. This was the district’s first year to be selected as a finalist.

Dorina Sackman, front right, Florida Teacher of the Year for 2014, joins other teachers and employees of Orange County, Fla., schools cheering at a watch party on Monday as they learn their district will share the Broad Prize.

“There is no single solution to the challenge of ensuring a world-class education for every child,” Secretary Duncan said in a press release. “Gwinnett County and Orange County have taken very different paths.”

Records of Achievement

Though similar in size and demographics, the two districts represent different pictures of student achievement.

Gwinnett County, a 169,000-student district in suburban Atlanta, was already a high performer among the pool of 75 urban districts that meet the Broad Foundation’s criteria to be eligible for the annual prize.

In 2013, 88 percent of its high school seniors took the SAT, the highest participation rate among the qualifying districts, according to the Broad Foundation. In that same year, 90 percent of the district’s African-American seniors took the SAT, while 70 percent of Latinos did so. That compares to an average participation rate of 43 percent for black seniors and 40 percent of Latino seniors among all Broad-eligible districts.

And Gwinnett ranked among the top 20 percent of Georgia districts for the percentage of low-income students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels who earned the highest achievement levels in reading, math, and science as measured by state exams. Fifty-five percent of Gwinnett’s students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty.

The district has made a concerted effort to encourage students, particularly African-American and Hispanic students, to participate in Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate programs.

“It gets done in the classroom, by teachers teaching a rigorous, engaging, relevant curriculum,” Mr. Wilbanks said, explaining how the district has sustained academic growth and targeted the achievement gap. “It gets done when principals ensure that that is happening in every classroom, and our district people ensure that it happens every school. That doesn’t mean that we still don’t have work to do. We do, but we have had great success, and we appreciate our people, and the great job that they do. “

But Mr. Wilbanks said there is more the district can to do close the achievement gap — and it is heading full speed ahead to do so.

In the Orange County district, gains in academic achievement have come more recently.

For example, between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of low-income Orange County students performing at the highest achievement level on Florida’s middle school reading test rose 6 percentage points compared to 1 percentage point for their peers in the rest of the state. And between 2010 and 2013, participation rates and average scores on Advanced Placement tests rose for all juniors and seniors in the district, but especially for Hispanic students in those two grades.

The Broad Foundation also said that Orange County’s schools had 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, as well as elementary and middle school science.

That made choosing a winner from the two finalists difficult for the nine-member selection jury. “We wrestled with performance versus improvement,” Edward G. Rendell, a former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and a member of selection jury said in a press release.

Ms. Jenkins credits strong, consistent leadership, dating to her predecessor, Ronald Blocker, who served for 12 years as superintendent, and with whom she worked for six years before taking the district helm; a focus on data that the district then used to drive attention and resources to the weakest areas; and support from the community—particularly during the economic recession when taxpayers approved huge property tax increases to help fund school programs and stave off painful program cuts. Centralizing curriculum, assessment, and professional development have also been critical, she said.

“In an urban setting, if you want to see a difference, it takes everybody’s collective effort to help children to be successful,” she said. “The school systems cannot do it alone. They have got to have support from their community as well. So it’s the long-term consistent leadership, the focus on data and driving decisions based on that data, and driving initiatives based on that data; and certainly having the community buy-in to support the work that the school system is trying to do. I think all three of those are critical. There are certainly more issues that are critical as well, but I think those are three that we really appreciate in Orange County.”

The district used data, for example, to encourage more students to enroll in Advanced Placement classes. Instead of waiting for students to sign up for the courses, or for parents to request them, or for teachers to recommend students, district officials let students’ PSAT scores drive enrollment in those courses. They then provided mentoring and educational supports—Saturday, evening, and early morning classes—for students who needed help.

They also created a Minority Achievement Office, again, to provide additional support to children who needed extra help, Ms. Jenkins said.

“I want to be clear: It’s not like we think we have arrived,” she said. “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.”

Lack of Progress

Districts can’t be nominated for the Broad Prize, but any that meet eligibility criteria can be in the running. Under the Broad Foundation’s most recent eligibility requirements, districts must enroll at least 42,500 students. Forty percent of students must be eligible for free and reduced-price meals—a measure of poverty—and 40 percent must be nonwhite.

Since its establishment in 2002, the Broad Prize has singled out urban districts for demonstrating strong student achievement gains while narrowing performance gaps between different groups based on family income and race and ethnicity. In more recent years, the prize has drawn criticism for selecting districts both as finalists and winners that, despite improvements, still have weak achievement overall.

Mr. Broad himself on Monday referenced the challenges inherent in improving urban public education.

“We have been working [for] 15 years to improve our nation’s public schools, and there are few things we’ve learned,” Mr. Broad said. “First, this is hard work. We have an enormous amount of respect, appreciation for teachers and administrators who work tirelessly to ensure that every student entrusted into their care is prepared for life after high school. We’ve learned that efforts to improve public schools take time—school districts can be slow and bureaucratic. We’ve learned that we don’t have time. We can’t afford to let generations of students fall through the cracks while politics and personalities distract them from the core work that happens in the classroom, and we have learned, through our work on the Board Prize, that there are pockets of success. There are districts—like Gwinnett County and Orange County—that are doing something right. They have stable leadership and laser-like focus, top to bottom, on making sure every child receives a great education. That’s why we are here today, to celebrate these districts and draw national attention on them so that others can learn from their success. “

The announcement was made at the Time Warner Center in New York City, where former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered the keynote address and former Broad Scholarship winner, Talmo Pereira—an immigrant from Brazil, a graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools, and a student at the University of Maryland—delivered a speech about how the Broad Scholarship set him on the path to a career in neuroscience.

Before this year, the foundation has named as many as five finalists for the award, but in selecting only two districts for consideration for the 2014 prize, Broad officials said they had been underwhelmed by the lack of progress in urban school systems. The selection jury evaluated student-performance data from the two districts, as well as their policies and practices. Interviews with administrators, teachers, and parents, along with information gleaned from visits to the districts conducted by a team of education practitioners, were also weighed by the panel.

The jury for this year’s prize also included former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, along with Henry Cisneros, a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development; Christopher Dodd, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut; Donald Graham, the chairman and chief executive officer of Graham Holdings Co. (formerly The Washington Post Co.); James B. Hunt, Jr., a former governor of North Carolina; Michael Lomax, the president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund; and Donna Shalala, a former U.S. secretary of health and human services.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week

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