In 2008, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system was searching for a way to promote fast but sustainable improvement at some of its lowest-performing schools.
Peter Gorman, then the superintendent of the 135,000-student district, created a plan called the Strategic Staffing Initiative: teams consisting of a principal and up to five handpicked teachers were placed in seven schools and given bonuses of up to $20,000 over three years if they brought up test scores.
The initiative, now in 25 schools, had its detractors, including those who were upset that teachers already at those schools weren’t part of the bonus system. However, the program’s success in improving academic achievement on some measures was cited last week as one of the reasons Charlotte-Mecklenburg won the prestigious Broad Prize this year.
The award, now in its 10th year, was announced Sept. 20. Sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the prize comes with a $550,000 award that will be distributed as college scholarships for the district’s high school seniors. The three other finalist districts—the Broward County and Miami-Dade systems in Florida and the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas—will each receive $150,000 in scholarships for their students.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, in south-central North Carolina, is growing and ethnically diverse. About 41 percent of students are black, 33 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Asian, American Indian, or multiracial. About 53 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a commonly used measure of student poverty, and 10 percent are designated as English-language learners.
Like the other finalists this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg had been singled out by the award program before. The district was a finalist in 2004 and 2010.
Hugh Hattabaugh, the district’s interim superintendent, said in an interview before the announcement that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district had made strides on more than two dozen education indicators, including improved graduation rates, sat scores, and scores on end-of-course exams.
The nomination “really says wonders about our teachers and their commitment to excellence,” said Mr. Hattabaugh, who has served as interim superintendent since July.
Mr. Gorman was the superintendent from 2006 to June of this year. He left the district to become a senior vice president with New York City-based News Corp. Mr. Gorman is also a 2004 graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains business executives, retired military officers, education administrators, and others to work in the nation’s largest school districts.
Mr. Gorman joined other district administrators in the audience as they waited through presentations from Eli Broad, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and singer and education advocate John Legend before the winner was announced. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg contingent erupted with cheers when the district’s name was read, as did school personnel back in North Carolina watching a live webcast of the program.
“This is the result of years of work focusing on student achievement,” Mr. Gorman said afterwards. “And they’ve done it at a time of declining revenues.”
Mr. Broad acknowledged in his remarks the hard work of all four districts, but he noted that at dozens of urban districts around the country, the outlook for many students is still bleak.
“The reality is, in the last decade, America’s schools have not come far enough,” Mr. Broad said.
The Broad Prize is the largest education award honoring school districts. Its purpose is to reward districts that improve achievement for disadvantaged students, to highlight successful urban districts and promote best practices, and to create an incentive for districts to improve. Last year, the Gwinnett County, Ga., district outside Atlanta won the award.
Seventy-five urban school districts are identified each year as eligible candidates for the award, based on size, low-income enrollment, minority enrollment, and urban environment. School districts cannot apply for the prize.
A 21-person review board then narrowed the list of candidates to four, basing the selections mostly on quantitative data. The foundation sends teams to each district to collect reams of quantitative and qualitative data, from which a second panel of seven business, government, and education leaders chose the winner.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 edition of Education Week as Unusual Staffing Plan Helps N.C. District Snag Broad Award