Education Funding

Ga.'s Gwinnett District Wins $1 Million Prize From Broad Foundation

By Erik W. Robelen — October 27, 2010 4 min read
Officials and administrators of the Gwinnett County schools, including Associate Superintendent Dale Robbins, front left, Celeste Strohl, front center, and Carol Grady, right, celebrate at the Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Ga., on learning that their district won the Broad Prize.
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The Gwinnett County, Ga., school district, located just outside Atlanta, last week was named the winner of the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education for 2010. The annual award, announced Oct. 18 in New York City, honors large urban school systems that demonstrate the strongest student achievement and improvement while narrowing performance gaps between different groups based on family income and ethnicity.

The 161,000-student district, led since 1996 by J. Alvin Wilbanks, will receive $1 million in college-scholarship money for students graduating in 2011. Gwinnett County was also a finalist for the award last year. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, in Los Angeles, established the program in 2002.

The four other finalists this year are the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, the Montgomery County, Md., public schools, and the Socorro and Ysleta districts in Texas. Each of those districts will receive $250,000 in scholarship aid.

“So many school districts in America are failing so many young people, so it’s great to see a district that stands out nationally,” Eli Broad, the founder of the Los Angeles-based philanthropy, said of the Gwinnett County district in a conference call with reporters after the announcement. He praised the school system’s strong and stable leadership, as well as its success in making academic gains over time and in closing achievement gaps.

“Gwinnett’s a model for how to get things done,” he said.

Leadership and Teamwork

Each year, 100 of the nation’s largest school districts that serve significant proportions of low-income and minority students are automatically eligible for the Broad Prize. The Gwinnett County district is the 14th largest in the nation, according to a fact sheet from the philanthropy. About half its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The enrollment is also racially and ethnically diverse: 33 percent white, 28 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.

A Broad Foundation press release highlights four of the reasons Gwinnett County was deemed to stand out. It says the district has:

• Outperformed similar districts in Georgia in reading and mathematics, based on standardized-test scores;

• Narrowed achievement gaps between different ethnic groups;

• Achieved high participation rates on the SAT, ACT, and AP exams; and

• Brought a greater percentage of black, Hispanic, and low-income students to the highest achievement levels across elementary, middle, and high school, compared with their counterparts statewide.

A fact sheet from the foundation also identifies some of the factors seen as driving the district’s success. For one, it notes that the school system has devised its own curriculum, which is “designed to be aligned with—but more challenging than—state standards” and is also geared to be “relevant to students’ lives.”

The district’s central office serves as a model and guide of instructional effectiveness, the fact sheet says. The foundation praises Mr. Wilbanks, the superintendent and chief executive officer, for providing “skillful leadership” and the school board for working “collaboratively.” It also highlights the longevity of the superintendent, who’s been in office for a decade and a half, and school board members, all of whom have served several terms. And the fact sheet says that Gwinnett County is “not a district of haves and have-nots.”

It elaborates: “School administrators and teachers widely report that students have equal access to programs—including honors and Advanced Placement courses—regardless of whether they live in the more heavily populated communities near Atlanta or the more rural areas in the northern part of the district.”

For his part, Mr. Wilbanks said in an interview that central to the district’s approach is “the belief that all students can learn, having high expectations, and then making sure that what goes on in the classroom [furthers those expectations].”

He also praised the district for having a “great community, a great board, and a great staff. ... We work together as a team.”

Asked to highlight important changes made during his tenure, Mr. Wilbanks pointed to the development of a “rigorous and comprehensive curriculum,” along with efforts to make sure that it is not only taught in the classroom, but taught effectively and is closely aligned to student assessments.

“If you do that, you can go a long ways to making some gains in student achievement,” Mr. Wilbanks said.

The nine members of the final selection jury this year for the Broad Prize included three former U.S. education secretaries: Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, and Richard W. Riley; as well as former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala.

The selection jury evaluated student-performance data from the school districts, as well as their policies and practices, drawing on interviews with administrators, teachers, parents, and others, along with information gleaned from site visits conducted by a team of education practitioners.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ga.'s Gwinnett District Wins $1 Million Prize From Broad Foundation

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