District on Texas Border Wins Broad Prize for Urban Education

By Dakarai I. Aarons — October 14, 2008 4 min read
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The Brownsville, Texas, school district was named the winner of the 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education last week for its progress with an overwhelmingly poor student population.

The Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation gives 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. 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.

The 49,000-student Brownsville district won the honor for outperforming its peer Texas districts in overall mathematics and reading scores in 2007. Ninety-four percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and 43 percent are identified as English-language learners.

Hector Gonzales, the superintendent of the Brownsville schools since 2006, said winning the prize was a validation of the district’s efforts to use data to boost student achievement.

“We’re real proud of what we have achieved,” he said of the award at a Oct. 14 ceremony at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “It is a huge tribute to our teachers, parents, and students and entire Brownsville community.”

Eli Broad, right, congratulates Hector Gonzales, the superintendent of the Brownsville, Texas, school district, which won the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The district will receive $1 million in college scholarships for graduating seniors.

Between 2004 and 2007, the district surpassed statewide average increases in proficiency scores among Hispanic and low-income students in elementary and high school reading, and in math at all levels, the Broad Foundation said in making the award.

“Brownsville is the best-kept secret in America,” Eli Broad said in a written statement. “In the face of stark poverty, Brownsville is outpacing other large urban districts nationwide because it is smartly focusing all resources on directly supporting students and teachers.

“Other school districts can learn a great deal from Brownsville’s success.”

ELL Strategies

The Brownsville district, on Texas’ southeastern tip, will receive $1 million in college-scholarship money for students, and the four districts that were finalists will receive $250,000 each. The amounts are double those given in previous years. Mr. Broad said last month that the award money was increased to reflect rising college costs. (“Broad Foundation Doubles Awards Under Urban Education Prize,” September 10, 2008.)

Comparing Math Achievement

Hispanic students in the Brownsville, Texas, district posted higher proficiency rates in mathematics than Hispanic students statewide in 2007.


SOURCE: Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

The foundation singled out Brownsville for a districtwide focus on curriculum and accountability, along with strong fiscal policies that direct money to classrooms.

Most students in the majority-Hispanic district start school with limited English skills. Brownsville serves its ELL students through both a transition program, in which students are taught primarily in Spanish with an emphasis on mastering English-language skills, and a dual-immersion program, which teaches students in both English and Spanish. Placement is based on student proficiency and parental consent.

All new teachers are trained in strategies deemed effective for working with English-language learners, and most elementary school teachers are certified in bilingual education.

The goal, which the district says most students meet, is to have students proficient in English by the end of 3rd grade. Most students leave ELL programs by 4th grade.

“We’ve been able to keep students in school and make them feel comfortable because they are learning in the language they understand first, and then transitioning,” Mr. Gonzales said. “We are trying to develop the confidence of the child so they can graduate from high school.”

Those language and content skills, in turn, will help students be successful in college and beyond, Mr. Gonzales said.

The district has revamped its data systems so that each teacher has access to information about students at his or her fingertips. A 4th grade teacher, for example, will be able to see the individual strengths and weaknesses of each student based on data from the student’s performance in 3rd grade, and then can target his or her teaching.

A key to the district’s transformation, said Mr. Gonzales, is a paradigm shift in the larger Brownsville community that has focused on student learning. There’s a new philosophy, he said, that no longer allows for writing children off because of their families’ low income or their poor language skills.

“They all have the ability to learn,” Mr. Gonzales said. “We just have to tap in to how they learn and address the issues.”

The other finalists for the Broad Prize were the Aldine Independent School District, also in Texas; the Broward County, Fla., public schools; the Long Beach Unified School District in California; and the Miami-Dade County, Fla., public schools. Brownsville was a first-time finalist, while the Miami-Dade and Aldine districts have been finalists three times. Long Beach won the award in 2003.

Last year’s winner was the New York City school system.

The Broad Foundation has spent more than $500 million on urban education since 1999, including financing programs that train school board members and potential superintendents.

The foundation underwrites Education Week’s 2008-09 series “A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as District on Texas Border Wins Broad Prize for Urban Education


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