The Houston school district was named the winner of the high-profile Broad Prize for Urban Education for its efforts to prepare all students for college and to bolster student achievement.
“If we keep our young people as our North Star, anything is possible,” said Houston Superintendent Terry Grier as he accepted the award last week, “including winning an award like this twice. It’s about children and about how adults work together for them.”
As the 2013 winner, the district will receive $550,000 in college scholarships for graduating seniors from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.
Philanthropist Eli Broad and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came together at the Library of Congress to commend Houston’s leaders and those of the three other districts named as finalists.
The nation’s 75 largest urban school districts automatically qualify for consideration each year for the prize. The finalists were selected by a 17-member review board composed of researchers, practitioners, and executives from universities, as well as national education groups and nonprofits. An eight-member jury chose Houston based on site visits and analyses of its student performance data, policies, and practices.
The other finalists were the Cumberland County district in North Carolina, the San Diego Unified district, and the Corona-Norco Unified district in Riverside County, Calif.,which, along with Houston, was also a finalist in 2012. Each runner-up receives $150,000 in scholarships.
The nation’s seventh largest district, Houston serves approximately 210,000 students, 80 percent of whom qualify for a federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunch. The district is 62 percent Hispanic, 26 percent African-American, 3 percent Asian, and 8 percent white.
Houston was recognized for its students’ academic achievement gains, its ability to increase the district graduation rate faster than its competitors, and its progress in narrowing achievement gaps for low-income and Hispanic students from 2009 to 2012 and improving students’ college-readiness, among other achievements.
Houston’s graduation rate rose from 64 percent in 2007 to 79 percent in 2012, according to district data.
The district also has the highest SAT participation rate of any district in the competition—two-thirds higher than the Texas average—and the highest increase in Advanced Placement exam participation for all students. All district high schools must offer at least 15 Advanced Placement courses and the school system pays for students to take these tests.
In an interview prior to the announcement, Mr. Grier credited Houston’s success in part to its focus on making quality teaching available to every student in every classroom and its commitment to site-based decision-making. The district implemented a merit-pay plan for teachers and allows families to select which school their students attend.
But these policies don’t come without controversy. A Houston news station this year reported a 28 percent increase in teacher resignations.
In an interview with Education Week, Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, argued that the exits were spurred in part by ineffective principals and the district’s new teacher evaluations.
“We do have some principals that are very badly trained and rude, and a lot of very young principals,” said Ms. Fallon, adding that she was happy to learn of Houston’s win and proud of “the work our teachers did” to enable it.
Houston won the first Broad Prize in 2002 under Superintendent Rod Paige, who later became President George W. Bush’s education secretary.
Houston’s first win was later questioned, however, when news surfaced that the district’s actual dropout rates were far worse than the rates reported to the state.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as Houston District Wins Broad Urban Education Prize—Again