Education Funding

A Four-Time Finalist, Texas District Earns $1 Million Broad Prize

By Dakarai I. Aarons & Catherine Gewertz — September 16, 2009 4 min read
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The Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the 2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education last week for its progress in educating an overwhelmingly poor student population.

The prize was awarded Sept. 16 by the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which bestows the award annually to a city school district that has made notable strides in improving achievement, especially in closing gaps between students of different racial and ethnic groups.

Before announcing the winner in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the leaders of all five finalist districts as “true American heroes” for producing high achievement despite lean economic times and their students’ socioeconomic challenges.

The finalists also came in for congratulations from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty of the District of Columbia and several members of Congress, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

This year marked the fourth time that Aldine had been a finalist for the Broad Prize. It lost last year to the Brownsville, Texas, district on the state’s southeastern tip.

The 60,000-student Aldine district, located in northern metropolitan Houston, will receive $1 million in college-scholarship money for students. The four other finalist districts will receive $250,000 each.

Districts cannot apply or be nominated for the award; 100 urban districts are selected each year by the foundation for eligibility based on their demographics.

Community Effort

Aldine won the honor for outperforming its peer Texas districts in overall mathematics and reading scores in 2008. Eighty-four percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, and 31 percent are identified as English-language learners.

Foundation leaders said the district was able to make progress in closing test-score gaps between low-income and non-low-income students in reading at all school levels, and in elementary and middle school math, between 2005 and 2009. Of particular note, they said, was the fact that the district narrowed the test-score gap between its African-American students and the state average for white students in middle school mathematics by 14 percentage points between 2005 and 2008.

“Aldine has demonstrated that when an entire community and district work together with a singular focus on educating every child, they can succeed, even against the odds of poverty,” Eli Broad said in a prepared statement. “Theirsuccess holds valuable lessons for other urban districts trying to do the same.”

Wanda Bamberg, in her third year as Aldine’s superintendent, said the work that led to the prize began a decade ago, when leaders began to focus intently on improving achievement in their high-poverty, high-mobility district.

Of paramount importance, she said, has been the development of a “scope and sequence” guiding instruction in pre-K through 12th grades, and building knowledge about gathering and analyzing data, “so we know what teachers are teaching, how it’s being asessed, and that the data are being used to inform instruction.”

The district also placed a premium on developing strong principals, and supported its teachers in using one-on-one interventions to help struggling students, Ms. Bamberg said.

“All of this was so much about alignment,” she said. “We had all this good work going on, and we had our school board supporting us, too.”

Broad Foundation officials pointed to additional districtwide strategies that paid off. Because of high student mobility, Aldine leaders decided it was important to take a “managed” approach to instruction. Teams of teachers designed math and reading curricula that are used districtwide.

The district instituted more frequent assessments that provide quick feedback to teachers and allow them to adjust instruction, and designed an online curriculum and assessment database that lets teachers access model lessons. It also aggressively recruits teachers and tries to keep them in the district. And it reworked its teacher training so that trainers could see where teachers were weak, using student data, and customize training to bolster those skills.

Better data-gathering and analysis also guide a new early-warning approach. Aldine is now targeting special supports to 120 high school freshmen whose grades, attendance, or behavior suggest they run a risk of failing.

The other finalists were the Socorro Independent School District, also in Texas; the Broward County, Fla., public schools; the Long Beach Unified School District in California; and the Gwinnett County, Ga., public schools.

The Socorro and Gwinnett school systems were first-time finalists this year. Broward was a finalist last year, along with three-time finalist Long Beach, which won the award in 2003.

The foundation began the awards program in 2002.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Aldine, Texas, District Wins Broad Prize

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